THE army's grip on Burma remains firm. But the upheaval that began last summer with the departure from office of military ruler U Ne Win still has some strength left. The Burmese people's desire for economic betterment and a more democratic government is seen in the registration of 170 new political ``parties'' - most of them small debating societies that want the protection of being on the official register. The push for change was also evident in the crowd of 100,000 or so that turned out, despite warnings from the army, for the funeral of the wife of Aung San, who led Burma to independence from Britain in the late 1940s.
Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, now leads the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party. The National Unity Party, inheritor of Ne Win's old Burma Socialist Program Party, has the army's backing, but the generals have to be worried by the popular support for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. If a fair election were held today, the National League for Democracy would probably triumph.
That's doubtless why a national vote, promised by Ne Win as he stepped down last July, seems to be perpetually pushed into the future by the current military rulers. After brutally crushing street demonstrations in September, Ne Win prot'eg'e Gen. Saw Maung said elections would come once law and order had been restored. That has been achieved, but since then other preconditions have been added: upgrading and repairing the country's transportation system, improving living standards.
The irony in these conditions, particularly the latter, is the near impossibility of accomplishing them under the present government. Halting, halfway efforts to modernize an economy made primitive by Ne Win's 26-year rule have failed. An unrealistic official exchange rate effectively blocks most trade and foreign investment.
The country's hope is a transition to democratic rule and the installation of leaders with some grasp of economics. Many observers see this hope dimming as the army consolidates its hold on power. But the army voluntarily gave up power once before, in 1960 when then army chief Ne Win - ever a central figure it seems - earlier stepped down after a beleaguered civilian government had asked him to take charge for a limited time.
It can only be hoped that Ne Win, now a shadowy figure in his 80s but still believed to wield influence, and his followers see the wisdom of repeating that history.