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The Lady and the Generals: Gloves Off in Burma

Arrest of a senior opponent worries some that National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi will be next.

This often-overlooked Southeast Asian nation, known as much for its teak and rubies as for its despots disposing of democracy, rarely plays out its political dramas in public.

That's why little notice was taken recently when a leading member of Burma's pro-democracy movement, Oo Sooe Myint, was arrested and interrogated.

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Yet to those trying to protect the leading democracy fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the remnants of her popular National League for Democracy (NLD), this action by Burma's military regime reveals a new tactic to turn up the heat on the pro-democracy movement's upper echelon.

The move against such a senior NLD party leader has some observers concerned that the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate may herself soon be targeted for the same treatment that in the past decade has sent as many as 2,000 pro-democracy activists to prison on trumped-up charges.

That may explain why American journalists trying to reach Ms. Suu Kyi's home recently were blocked by a dozen government security agents (see story at right).

"It is becoming much worse," says a senior NLD member. The NLD serves as a coalition of those opposed to the junta that has ruled the country (also known as Myanmar) since 1988 and continued the authoritarian rule of former Gen. Ne Win.

The senior NLD member asked that he not be identified by name out of concern that the regime's secret police might retaliate and throw him in prison for talking to an American journalist.

Knock on the door

"I have to keep my clothes and medicine ready [in a suitcase]," he says, "because any night they may knock at the door."

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Some analysts say they are hopeful that a shakeup among the ruling generals last November is fostering a more constructive approach to the pro-democracy movement in Burma.

But others say there is no change in the military government's apparent strategy of attempting to marginalize the NLD.

"As far as I can see there has been no improvement at all," says party leader Suu Kyi in a videotape recently smuggled out of Burma and presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. "In fact I could say that I am inclined to think that things have even gotten worse."

The military government has been under international pressure to reach a peaceful accommodation with Ms. Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders.

In a 1990 election, Suu Kyi's NLD won more than 80 percent of the seats in what would have been the newly created parliament. But the ruling generals declared the vote invalid and blocked the party from forming a government.

"The government will do whatever it feels it needs to do to remain in power," says a Western diplomat in Rangoon.

Suu Kyi not fit to rule?

Analysts say the military's actions are rooted in a fundamental fear within the military that Suu Kyi - who is often referred to simply as "the lady" - is not a skilled and powerful enough leader to prevent the nation from sliding back into a state of widespread civil war.

From the military's perspective, the Burmese people should be grateful for the sacrifice made by the country's soldiers in fighting ethnic militias. And they should recognize the military's significant achievement in negotiating cease-fire agreements with most of those militias.

But the bottom line, the military says, is that Burma is not ready yet for democratic rule.

"The lady needs to understand our mentality. She doesn't," says Lt. Col. U Hla Thann, an official at the Ministry of Defense and director of a company organized to attract foreign investment despite existing international economic sanctions.

"[The ruling generals] believe they have saved this country from implosion," says Bernard Pe-Win, a Burmese-born British businessman with investments in the local economy.

But Mr. Pe-Win says government efforts to present its side of the story to the international media have failed badly. "Government PR is inept," he says. "They come from a military background and to them PR is a sham."

Regime seeks rifts in NLD

Analysts say the only possibility of dialogue between the NLD and the ruling generals is if the junta calculates that such discussions might foster rifts within the pro-democracy movement.

They have attempted in the past to reach out to democratic leaders other than Suu Kyi in the hope that doing so might undermine her status.

In addition to leading the democratic movement, Suu Kyi is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the assassinated national hero who negotiated Burma's independence from Britain.

There is, at present, no desire on the part of the ruling generals to achieve a national reconciliation with democratic activists.

Every day the regime publishes the same list of political, economic, and social objectives on the front page of the government-controlled newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar. The list includes a call for "national reconsolidation" rather than national reconciliation.

Regime goes for higher echelon

In the past, the military government has attempted to disrupt pro-democracy efforts by arresting and harassing activists at the lower and middle echelons of the NLD. Some received prison terms of seven to 10 years after being convicted in secret trials.

Today, analysts say, the government appears prepared to strike, if necessary, directly at the NLD's leadership. The arrest of Oo Sooe Myint, 1 of 10 members of the NLD's central executive committee, is a leading example of that possible strategy.

Analysts say the government now appears poised to take similar action against other party leaders, including Suu Kyi. "They will be faced with a real tough decision: 'Do we arrest her too?' " says another Rangoon-based Western diplomat who is closely monitoring political developments.

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