WHEN Burma's longtime dictator, U Ne Win, stepped down two weeks ago, the Burmese people appeared to have some prospect of democratic change. But the installment of an unpopular hard-liner, U Sein Lwin, has dulled those hopes. Now the Burmese people are making their anger known. Reports arrive daily of violent street clashes in Rangoon and other parts of Burma, of atrocities by soldiers, of policemen murdered by mobs. Thousands of average Burmese, not just politicized students, seem ready to face bullets rather than passively submit to more repression. Food shortages are adding to public outrage.
Mr. Sein Lwin and the Burma Socialist Program Party face an ultimatum: Bend to the popular will and take concrete steps to reform a benighted and corrupt political system, or risk further violence and even the possibility of civil war.
The Burmese Army, bulwark of Mr. Ne Win's two decades in power, may hold the key to what happens next. There are scattered hints of mutiny in the ranks, of soldiers refusing to fire on civilians.
Momentum behind change in Burma has likely become too great to simply dissipate if the government decides to stonewall. The people of Burma deserve to elect a leader freely and to benefit from an economic structure that can better meet their needs.