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NEWSWEEK April 21, 1997

Dangerously Rich

Friends and family of the ruling generals prosper while Rangoon threatens to
burn -- and now one of their own is dead

By Dorinda Elliott and Sudarsan Raghavan

As far as anyone knows, Cho Lei Oo was an innocent, and it was her father
whom the bombers were after.  He is Lt. Gen. Tin Oo, one of the most
powerful men in Burma.  In the heavy-handed jargon of the ruling junta, he
is officially "Secretary No. 2" of the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC).  Now he is in the line of fire.  This December, two
explosions killed five people in Rangoon's famous Kaba Aye Buddhist temple,
only hours after Tin Oo paid a visit.  No suspects were caught, but last
week Tin Oo was once again a target, and once again escaped while a
bystander was killed: his 34-year-old daughter, Cho Lei.

Why did she die?   The source of the bomb was a mystery.  SLORC claimed to
have traced it to Japan and thus to the international network of Burmese
dissidents who support Aung San Suu Kyi, champion of Burma's harshly
suppressed democracy movement, who denied involvement.  Diplomats suggested
the attack may have sprung from infighting between generals who want to ease
SLORC's grip and those (including Tin Oo) who do not.  IF the motive was
unclear, the symbolism of the bombings was not.  These were the first terror
attacks ever to strike Burma's military dictators in Rangoon, where SLORC
generals live in high style, and rule from a fortress ringed with barbed
wire.  The December attacks targeted a temple SLORC promotes as a tourist
destination, just a few blocks from luxury hotels built to lure foreign
investors.  The bomb last week came in a mail delivery, and exploded inside
the walled compound of Tin Oo's villa on the posh outskirts of the capital.
This is a home and playground to many top SLORC officials and the
beneficiaries of their rule -- a privileged new class that is deeply
resented throughout Burma.  Cho Lei likely died by the accident of her
birth: she was one of the dangerously rich.

This elite did not exist as recently as 1991.  Back then Rangoon was rich
only with faded memories of life before Ne Win, the general who seized power
and sealed the borders in 1962.  Under Ne Win's cramped vision of socialism,
"the Burmese Way," Rangoon was left stuck in time, with 1950s Chevrolets
rattling past British colonial buildings.  By the late 1980s students, monks
and workers had taken tot he streets demanding freedom and democracy.
Instead Ne Win was followed by SLORC, which stole an election victory from
Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 (sic) and crushed the demonstrations that followed.
SLORC would, however, lift the atmosphere of repression in one respect.  In
1992 it abandoned the facade of socialism.  A favored class was allowed to
court foreign investors and get rich, and today they are visible all over
Rangoon.  "These people care least about politics," says a Rangoon doctor,
whose son is joining the new elite with a salary 10 times the monthly
average ($25) working for an import-export firm.  "For them, life has never
been better."

Today the Burmese Way looks much like the crony capitalism of the
Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos.  The biggest winners are the SLORC
generals, their children and businessmen with close ties to them.  They wear
Western clothes instead of traditional, ankle-length sarongs.  Their
satellite -television dishes dot the skyline, their Japanese cars clog the
streets and their conversation drifts to a distant symbol of quick riches --
America.  At video clubs around the country requests flood in for bootleg
copies of their favorite recent movies: "Twister" and "Independence Day."

The children of the elite are partying while the country threatens to burn.
On the dance floor at the Galaxy disco, smoke billows up around a surreal
Rangoon vision of America.  Teenage sons of the elite turn out as clothing
clones of Bronx home boys: baseball caps turned backward, oversize shirts,
pants bagging around their ankles and big, flashy sneakers.  "I love to
dance," shouts one of them, swinging a glass of Coke ans whisky as he
gyrates around the floor.  Outside, revelers crowd into a Japanese station
wagon and cruise the streets of Rangoon, passing a bottle of Russian vodka
and blasting the Macarena on the stereo.  Their aspirations?  "We want to be
as free as we are now," says a university student.

For average Burmese, that much freedom is hardly enough.  They are left out
of an economy growing at the modest rate of around 3 percent each year.
Inflation is running at more than 30 percent, so the government is printing
money to subsidize the army and civil service, while prices soar for the
poor.  Eggs have soared from five cents a dozen to a dollar in recent years
and because SLORC's reputation is so bad, Burma gets little international
aid.  While the military pays 15 cents a gallon for gasoline, the public
pays $1.75.  Stores are full of Toshiba TVs and knockoffs of Calvin Klein
and other American products, but most people can't afford to buy.  The $3
beer at the Galaxy disco is way out of reach.  The growing frustration was
palpable one Sunday afternoon at the Rangoon City Golf Resort, where the
$3,000 membership fee is 20 times the average annual salary.  As potbellied
businessmen sipped lime sodas and beer with clients from Singapore, Thailand
and China, a driver waited outside among the Land Rovers.  "This is for rich
people, military people," he said in disgust.  "normal people don't come here."

Even beneficiaries of the SLORC system are cynical about the money required
to make it work.  One 26-year old son of a hotel owner owns a Japanese car
and watches CNN regularly.  Despite his comforts, he can't stand a regime he
describes as openly "corrupt."  He says three different ministers refused to
give him a permit for his car until he paid them "a lot" of money.  "If they
like you, they'll give you so many facilities," he says.  "If they don't
like you, they'll send you to jail."  Nor is he a supporter of Suu Kyi; he
sees her call for an international boycott on Burma as a threat to
prosperity.  In the last year, Pepsi, Kodak and other Western companies have
pulled out under criticism from Washington for consorting with SLORC, and
Rangoon's new class is none too pleased to lose their business.  "I want to
make money," says the hotel owner's son.  "That's all."

In Burma's second largest city, Mandalay, anger is high over the sudden
prosperity of ethnic Chinese merchants, who began moving in after SLORC
relaxed investment rules.  Locals accuse the Chinese of funding businesses
with drug money and have turned on all outsiders.  In recent weeks, Buddhist
monks have rioted against local Indian Muslims.  According to the
government, which has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, the riots began after a
Muslim allegedly raped a Burmese girl, but tension has been growing in the
city since a least January.

Monks are angry at SLORC's efforts to cloak their kleptocracy in the robes
of Buddhism -- the major religion in Burma.  The official New Light
newspaper trumpets Buddhist slogans and reports of the government's building
new pagodas.  AT the sacred Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, monks are saying
that bumbling government repairmen recently melted the gold and bronze on a
famous image of Buddha, and then walked off with precious stones and gems.
Inside the pagoda, the government has posted large photographs of uniformed
SLORC generals sitting with senior monks clad in orange robes.  Across the
country, soldiers routinely swagger into temples with their machine guns.
"We think this is very strange to have soldiers in our temples, because
politics and religion shouldn't mix," says one young monk in Mandalay.  "But
it is a reflection of the situation in our country."  

SLORC generals know they have become targets.  Their paranoid mood is on
display every night on the television news, which sometimes features a
wholesome looking woman singing patriotic songs against background footage
of warplanes dropping bombs.  On the road to the Rangoon airport, huge red
and white billboards proclaim in English and Burmese that it is "The
People's Desire" to "oppose those relying on external elements, and stooges
holding negative views" and "to crush all internal and external destructive
elements," Spies scour the population for Suu Kyi sympathizers, and
blacklist them from government jobs.  A Western diplomat in Rangoon says
SLORC "is taking on a kind of siege mentality, as if the country were
teetering on the verge of mayhem."

The December bombing in Rangoon was a turning point.  It followed the latest
round of protests by Rangoon university students: this time, they were
careful not to risk arrest by pushing for democracy.  Nonetheless, they are
supporters of Suu Kyi. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading Burma's
democracy movement, but the military still restricts her movements.  During
the protests senior government ministers were ordered to sleep in their
offices.  Since then dozens of Suu Kyi's supporters have been thrown in
jail.  Troops patrol the streets of Rangoon, and military barricades block
the road to Suu Kyi's lakeside villa.  Herr supporters still gather every
weekend afternoon at Gold Leaf Corner in hope that she will show up.  One
man leaning against his car muttered to a recent foreign visitor: "Bad
SLORC.  Dirty SLORC."  

All over the country, people tune in tot he BBC and Voice of America to hear
recorded messages from Suu Kyi -- calling for democracy, talks with the
government, a new, democratic Constitution.  In an interview with NEWSWEEK
shortly after the December bombing, Suu Kyi worried that the government's
constant threats to "crush" and "annihilate" opponents would inspire more
violence and terror.  "I'm very much aware of people saying, ' We can't sit
still.  We need to take firmer action.' And some of this means armed
action," she said.  "This is exactly what we don't want."  IT's exactly what
Burma got with the bombing last week, and the violence appears likely to

For the moment the junta is taking no chances.  SLORC has extended its
crackdown to the annual Water Festival, traditionally a giddy celebration of
the lunar New Year.  The festival is an excuse for all Burmese to relax and
enjoy the freedom to soak perfect strangers with water guns, hoses or
balloons.  But this year, the generals have created a Water Festival
Disciplinary Committee to make sure the celebration does not get out of
control.  They have warned that no criticism of the government will be
tolerated during the festival, which takes place this week.  And they have
announced penalties of two years in jail for filling a water balloon, three
years for throwing one.  Just to make sure they aren't in the line of fire,
the generals recently dismantled their festival viewing stands in Rangoon.
Most of them will pass the festival in the tranquil city of Pagan, far from
the terror that now threatens them in the capital.