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U.S. Distancing Itself From Embattled Burma Regime

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Times Staff Writer

The United States, which in the past has given limited support to the government of Burma as part of the American campaign against illegal drugs, took steps Thursday to distance itself from the regime of military leader Sein Lwin in the midst of its bloody suppression of anti-government protests.

A State Department spokesman said the situation in Burma is “very fluid,” with the outcome uncertain, and the United States issued a new warning against travel to Burma. Meanwhile, U.S. officials privately began suggesting that the government will fall and speculating about what sort of leadership might take its place.

“Any change is probably a good change. Basically, what you have is a failed government collapsing on itself,” one U.S. official said. Although he said he could not predict what kind of government might take power in Burma, “the odds are that it will turn toward the West because the West has the money, trade and resources to bail it out.”

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No Popular Support

And a leading academic specialist on Burma, Rutgers University Prof. Joseph Silverstein, declared: “We’ve got a massive revolution going on. In my estimation, this government can’t last. The government has no popular support. The people have spent 26 years getting ready for this moment.”

In the Burmese capital of Rangoon on Thursday, a senior Western diplomat told United Press International that hospitals were “overflowing with bodies” after the fourth day of demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the government. The diplomat estimated that hundreds of people may have been killed. Radio Rangoon reported that 17 people were killed Thursday and that troops opened fire 18 times to disperse crowds.

For the last 25 years, Burma’s military leadership has carried out what it called the country’s own independent road to socialism. The military-backed Burma Socialist Program Party allowed no opposition parties and pursued an isolationist foreign policy, avoiding close ties with any other government.

Heavy Drug Traffic

At the same time, Burma has become heavily involved in drug trafficking. “There’s no doubt that Burma is far and away the No. 1 source of illicit opium production in the world,” a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration said Thursday.

According to estimates by the DEA and the State Department, last year Burma produced a crop of 925 to 1,230 metric tons of opium--far more than other opium-producing nations such as Afghanistan.

In recent years the United States has sought the cooperation of the Burmese regime to help eradicate the opium crop. The United States has given helicopters to Burma, trained Burmese pilots and provided help for a program of aerial crop spraying.

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“The crop eradication program has been a disaster,” Silverstein said. “After two years of spraying, Burma produced more opium this year than it ever has in the past.”

He said the United States has ignored complaints of human rights abuses in Burma and accusations that American helicopters are being used in campaigns against dissident groups.

“The American position has been that Burma is neutral, and it cooperates with us in fighting against opium, so that satisfies us,” he said.

One State Department official said the department calls attention to problems in Burma in its annual worldwide human rights reports to Congress. He said U.S. officials “are fairly confident that our equipment is not being used for purposes which we couldn’t condone.”

Burma proved to be of considerable strategic importance during World War II. The British government viewed it as a buffer preventing Japanese troops from entering India, and the United States used it to help deliver supplies to the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in western China.

Now, beyond the American drug efforts, U.S. officials said they do not consider Burma to be of great strategic significance.

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“Burma has been written off everyone’s copy book for so long that I don’t think it has any strategic importance,” one U.S. official said. He added, however, that the country is rich in resources. “If, in 1938, you had asked experts on Southeast Asia which country would develop most rapidly, everyone would have said Burma. It had rice exports, oil, teak.”

One State Department specialist on Asia said Burma “is not strategically located, but to the extent that it is unstable, it could have an effect on important neighbors like Thailand and China.”

Asia’s Lebanon

“If the country were to fracture apart, it could become the Lebanon of Southeast Asia,” Silverstein said.

Lwin, one of the country’s top military leaders, was named chairman of the Burmese Socialists on July 26 after Ne Win, who had ruled Burma since 1962, resigned.

Some U.S. experts predicted Thursday that Ne Win could assume power once again, while others predicted that some new “moderate” faction of military leaders may take control.

“Virtually all of these potential leaders have military backgrounds,” one State Department official said. “That’s been the sine qua non (necessity) for any high-ranking position in the Burmese government or Socialist Party.”

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