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Burma Backspin

After dousing democracy, arresting a popular dissident, and defying the West, the junta starts opening this repressed nation

IN dusty barracks two hours from Rangoon, the government of Burma is being retrained. The 250 officials in Special Refresher Course No. 4 at the Central Institute of Civil Services watch a close-circuit TV, while an instructor, drawing from theories of US psychologist A. H. Maslow, explains how to manage subordinates.

These ``special refresher courses,'' which began two years ago, have taught Western ideas on market economics and multiparty democracy to some 30,000 government officials, doctors, and teachers. This flirtation with Western ideas, coming after nearly three decades of isolation and socialism - and six years after a popular uprising - offers a clue as to how a military-run regime is opening Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta) in a slow and well-controlled way.

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The most important lesson for civil servants, many of whom joined the uprising, is ``patriotism,'' says Gen. Tin Tun, the Institute's head. ``It was evident that government servants at all levels lacked patriotism. It was important to teach them about what the government is doing for the country.''

Officials say they want to avoid a repeat of the ``chaos'' of 1988, when a pro-democracy revolt against then-ruler Gen. Ne Win left about 3,000 dead.

Those events also catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's founding father, into the role of the leading opposition politician. (See story, right.)

Since then, General Ne Win, who took power in a 1962 coup ending Burma's postwar democracy, has slipped into the background, leaving the military-run State Law and Order Restoration Council to manage the country. SLORC, as it is commonly called, has begun to free up a once-centralized economy while keeping a secure lid on political dissent with repressive measures.

The 1988 uprising forced SLORC to call a parliamentary election in 1990. During the lead-up to the vote, Ms. Suu Kyi was put under arrest and her new political party went on to win about 80 percent of the vote. SLORC ignored the results, leading to its isolation by the West.

``What is most important is survival, and the adequacy of the essentials of life,'' says U Set Maung, a SLORC economic adviser. ``What's the point of having a government at all if it can't provide anything for the people? We can't have the luxury of the kind of democracy [in the United States].''

The government has found many ways to convince the Burmese of its view. One example can be found in former Rangoon squatter U Po Thaung and his family of six. In 1988, they were forced to move to Shwepyithar, a ``new town'' 17 miles away. Nearly 1 million residents - more than 15 percent of the population of Rangoon (renamed Yangon by the regime) - was relocated to seven new towns. The government said the relocation was intended to give poor residents a better life. But another explanation was that the regime sought to scatter potential urban political opponents. Squatters were among the first to join with student demonstrators in the 1988 uprising.

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``When we first moved here, we were not happy,'' U Po Thaung says. ``But look at this,'' he says, pulling out a deed giving him rights to his land for 60 years. ``In Rangoon, we were squatters; now we are landowners.''

Such sentiments may well serve as a hedge for the military. The former squatters, says Rangoon Mayor U Kolay, ``will not create another disturbance in the future.''

The relocation program reflects a wider plan to dissolve opposition by giving people a stake in the emerging market system. The fruits of this strategy are apparent.

In 1990, there were almost no vehicles except military trucks. Today, private cars and blue Mazda taxis careen around the city. Phones were once few, now plenty. Satellite dishes pierce the horizon and more private shops line the streets.

Such prosperity, government officials say, dulls the appetite for political change. ``Of course, we always say, only when your tummy is full, then only can you sleep well,'' says Brig. Gen. David Abel, minister for national planning. ``As the economy grows, the political base will be stable.''

The strategy began in April 1992, when Gen. Saw Maung was replaced by Gen. Than Shwe, a moderate, as head of government. Since then, some 2,000 prisoners have been released, many of them political prisoners. More dramatically, in September 1994 the government held its first face-to-face talks with Suu Kyi.

Still, some 400 political activists remain in prison, according to Western estimates. And while recent roundups have been few, the sentencing of five well-known activists last summer sent a chill through the country.

``The SLORC has been consistent,'' says one foreign diplomat. ``It has never let up one iota. The top priority of this regime is to keep control. They want to improve their international image, but not at the cost of control and stability.''

Recently, however, SLORC has been gaining supporters in the international community - mainly Asian countries that want to do business with Burma, but most recently, the West. (See story, left.) And diplomats say the government now believes that people will not risk the relative stability and prosperity just to vent political frustrations.

In the meantime, the military is uncorking the political bottle partially, letting political tension seep out rather than explode.

The government is leaving nothing to chance. Two years ago, a National Convention convened to write the principles for a new constitution. Most of the 702 delegates were chosen by the government and, so far, the language drawn up would ensure that the military plays a ``leading role'' in the government, has sweeping powers to take over in an ``emergency,'' and - most controversially - disqualifies anyone married to a foreigner from holding elected office. This includes Suu Kyi.

Delegates from her party, the National League for Democracy, make up less than 15 percent of the convention. They say they have little say in the constitutional future of the country, a charge U Thaung Nyunt, a legal adviser to SLORC, dismisses. ``The NLD can put up their opinions freely and openly,'' he says. Asked to name a decision that has been influenced by the NLD, he observes, ``Up to now, they have had no influence.''

At the NLD's dark and nearly abandoned headquarters, staff members are philosophical. Notes one man, who declined to be named, ``We are very confident that someday - maybe 20 years from now - we will have civilian leadership.''

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