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Opposition Faces Tough Bargaining With Burmese Junta

HEADED for a stunning election victory, Burma's newly confident opposition faces tough bargaining with the country's ruling military junta. A Burmese outpouring against three decades of bare-knuckled military rule has overwhelmed both the government and the opposition in the wake of May 27 elections, say diplomats reached by telephone in the capital, Rangoon. It was Burma's first multiparty poll in 30 years.

As results still come in, the opposition is poised to win a commanding majority in the new national assembly, Western diplomats predict. At press time, the opposition had won 131 of the 142 seats declared.

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Although doubts remain that the military is ready to hand over power, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party, has political momentum. Still, with many NLD leaders under detention, the military holds the cards that will ensure it a strong say in a future government.

``The NLD will have to accept that the armed forces will have to play some role in the government,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It would be naive to expect them to go back to the barracks and just be an army.''

Gen. Saw Maung, head of the government, says the Army will not tolerate political turmoil or threats to national unity.

Until the government declares final results next week, procedures for any democratic transition remain unclear. Government officials say the junta, named the State Law and Order Committee, is committed to transferring power to a civilian government once the new assembly writes a new constitution.

The military government has ruled Burma since pro-democracy demonstrations were repressed in September 1988 and thousands were killed. The junta's political voice has been the National Unity Party, which was humiliated in the election.

Since then, government officials insisted multiparty elections would be held. However, the arrest of opposition leaders and the forced removal of thousands from Rangoon's opposition strongholds raised widespread doubts about the election's fairness and fears that it would be manipulated.

Then, in the week before the election, the junta seemed to change its tune, announcing procedures that ensured a free, secret ballot, observers say, and lifting a press ban that allowed some foreign journalists to cover the poll.

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Still, uncertainty overshadows the results. A major unknown is the future role, if any, of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been under house arrest since last July.

Educated in Britain, Ms. Suu Kyi returned home before the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and then rose to become its main leader as thousands of Burmese defied the Army in the streets. A bitter critic of the military's human rights abuses and a champion of democracy, Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the revered leader of Burma's independence movement against the British.

Wary of her charisma, the armed forces, in particular its strongman Gen. Ne Win, seem unwilling to let her become the prime minister. The general, officially retired though believed to retain behind-the-scenes control, has dominated Burma for a quarter century and is blamed for the isolation and socialist policies that have ruined the country's economy.

The NLD is expected to demand her release and an executive role in the new government. That could require a special election to obtain a parliamentary seat for Suu Kyi since she was prohibited from running in the May election.

For its part, the military is expected to demand a central role and no retribution for its brutal repression of the pro-democracy movement. Hard-line positions could mean a lengthy delay in a military handover of power to a civilian government, analysts say.

``Her release will be a factor in the negotiations,'' says a senior diplomat in Rangoon. ``And the military will try to exploit the NLD's desire for an early transfer of power.''

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