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In Burma, promises of democracy fade as military takes firm hold. Rangoon roots out opponents, while setting new conditions on elections

Despite a pledge to replace bullets with ballots, Burma's military has begun to douse any hopes for democracy. Opponents are being rooted out ruthlessly, Rangoon-based diplomats say, while a Western aid boycott has been weakened by the lure of lucrative trade and investment.

Such moves reveal the deft tactics of Burma's longtime strongman, U Ne Win, to stay in power, diplomats report.

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Mr. Ne Win proposed multiparty elections last July when he relinquished his official post. The offer could have ended his 26 years of military rule. But no date was ever set for an election. Instead, during recent months, an Army loyal to Ne Win gunned down protesters as three of his associates took over the reins of government in rapid succession.

The latest leader, military chief U Saw Maung, is controlled behind the scenes by Ne Win, diplomats say. Ne Win's villa in Rangoon is guarded by three battalions, they say, but his close advisers have informed foreign embassies of how he continues to issue orders.

As calm was restored to Burma's cities last month, the regime appeared to be making good on its promise by allowing political parties to be formed for the first time since 1962. A relatively independent election commission was also set up.

But a splintered opposition has rushed to register more than 100 parties, further strengthening the military's hand. One sign that Ne Win may not be serious about elections, diplomats say, is that the government's National Unity Party has been cut off from official support.

At the same time, about 5,000 student protesters fled to the Thai border, many hoping to take up arms and avenge the massive killings by the Army.

Nearly 1,000 of the students have reportedly surrendered or been killed, and the rest have become demoralized or lack any support in obtaining weapons. The government set a Nov. 18 deadline for them to surrender or face being hunted down.

Ridding the cities of radical student leaders has helped the regime create the appearance of normalcy. Last week, it announced foreign tourists may visit the country again, starting in December. Gasoline and basic commodities are more available; banks are open again. Universities, however, remain closed.

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In recent weeks, state workers who joined the protests were sacked. The government has recalled Burmese diplomats who openly sided with the demonstrators. That move resulted in three Burmese diplomats asking for asylum in Australia. Organizers of the political parties are being harassed or threatened.

On Nov. 4, the government said elections would be held only after three conditions were met: Peace would have to prevail; the battered rail and road network would have to be made secure; the basic food and shelter situation would have to be improved.

That last condition implied a long period of badly needed economic recovery before an election could take place. After practicing a strict socialism for two decades and isolating the country from foreign influences, the government has reversed itself in favor of free-market policies.

``The political turmoil is directly related to the plight of the economy,'' one diplomat says.

Japan, West Germany, the United States, and others cut off aid to Burma following the last wave of Army killings in September. The move severely diminished Burma's foreign currency reserves, which are reported to be down to $5 million.

Still, the government's new economic deregulation has enticed dozens of potential foreign investors to flock to Rangoon. Diplomats worry investors could help restore the economy and end unrest in the cities, leaving little incentive for an election.

Last week Thailand announced it was sending a foreign minister to Burma for trade talks. The move worries many Western governments hoping to keep up pressure on Rangoon.

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