Democracy as Practiced by the Burmese Generals : Myanmar: Today’s elections, first in 28 years, won’t empower an oppressed people--but they will fatten the treasury by bringing back foreign investors.

<i> Bertil Lintner is Myanmar correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of "Outrage--Burma's Struggle for Democracy," an account of the 1988 upheaval</i>

After 28 years of military dictatorship and one-party rule, Myanmar (formerly Burma) appears to be on the threshold of a new era of freedom. Today, more than 2,000 candidates representing some 100 political parties are contesting 486 constituencies.

But while it might seem that the military rulers have, at last, given in to the demands of a popular, pro-democracy uprising that swept across Burma in 1988, well before similar upheavals shook China and Eastern Europe, Burma resembles China and the tragedy on Tien An Men Square, not the successful revolutions in Eastern Europe.

The Burmese military machine-gunned thousands to death when it stepped in and reasserted its power Sept. 18, 1988, following more than a month of daily demonstrations for democracy. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) residents still remember the sight of army trucks laden with bullet-ridden corpses of young demonstrators, many barely in their teens, rumbling out of the capital.

That the same officers who ordered the massacre would condone “democratic, multi-party general elections,” to quote the official rhetoric, seems transparently absurd. But that’s precisely what they appear to be doing, and their opponents appear to be taking them at face value. When the army declared an end to its party’s monopoly on power, an abundance of political parties came forward to register with the authorities.


Among the larger new parties is the National League for Democracy led by U Tun U, a former chief of staff of the Burmese army who was purged in the 1970s, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the 43-year-old daughter of Aung San, the leader of Burma’s struggle for independence from Britain. Another is the League for Democracy and Peace headed by U Nu, Burma’s prime minister before the army, under Gen. Ne Win, first seized power in 1962. The Burma Socialist Program Party, the military’s former political alter ego, is now the National Unity Party. The name change has not fooled the population, however. There is also a plethora of regional parties, many with quaint names--the Ever Green Young Men’s Assn. and the National Peace and Comfort Party, to name two.

Yet 100 political parties do not make a democracy. In fact, the same military officers, still connected with the old despot Ne Win, who have ruled Myanmar since 1962 remain in power and are more repressive than ever. Amnesty International, the human-rights organization, recently reported that the Burmese military operates 19 torture centers and routinely brutalizes its political opponents. Anyone merely suspected of disapproving of the military government risks arrest, according to Amnesty International.

The fates of those who became prominent in the 1988 demonstrations are illustrative:

U Tin U, the 63-year-old leader of the National League, was placed under house arrest last year. Last December, he was sentenced to three years of prison and hard labor.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s general secretary, was also placed under house arrest last year. She is incommunicado in her home in Yangon, surrounded by heavily armed troops.

U Nu, now in his 80s, has been under house arrest since December.

Min Ko Naing, the charismatic, 26-year-old zoology student who led the pro-democracy demonstrations in Yangon, was arrested in March, 1989, and remains in custody. Reports from Yangon indicate that he has been tortured.

Moe Thi Zun, the other main student leader, fled to Thailand last year, vowing to lead an armed struggle against the military regime.

The hand of the military rulers is much in evidence in the campaigns. A Feb. 23 decree stipulated that campaign speeches be submitted to the authorities for “editing.” Organizers of outdoor rallies face prison if the crowds get out of hand. Candidates may face up to three years imprisonment if they “incite and undermine security, the prevalence of law and order and regional peace and tranquility,” or if they criticize the military.

Most astonishing, the military plans to take three weeks to count today’s votes. Then it will not release the vote tabulations, only the names of the winners.

It remains unclear, however, just what sort of assembly the winners will be members of. A new constitution must be drafted, which an army spokesman said could take up to two years. The military, meantime, will have to “ensure law and order” (read: it does not intend to hand over power to anybody).

Why are the Yangon generals perpetrating this charade?

After the massacre of 1988, all major foreign countries suspended their aid programs in Myanmar until general elections were held. Western embassies in Yangon also told investors back home to park their money elsewhere until after the elections.

Most Western countries abstained from dealing with the Burmese regime. Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, however, quickly made deals with the generals on selling the country’s natural resources--timber, jade, precious stones and seafood--at give-away prices. Today, when the Thai government has banned logging in its country, more than 20 Thai timber companies are stripping Myanmar of its last remaining forests.

Thus, the “democratic, multiparty” general elections do make some sense--for the generals. They lend a patina of legitimacy to their regime, thereby making it more difficult for foreign countries to justify their continued suspension of aid. And Western companies, already annoyed that the Thais, Singaporeans and South Koreans have the advantage, will want to rush in after today’s elections.

The sad reality is that the Yangon generals will probably get away with it. Nine foreign oil companies, among them Amoco and Unocal from the United States, have already made substantial investments in the country--and, indirectly, helped the diplomatically isolated Burmese regime obtain more hard currency, with which it buys massive amounts of arms and ammunition. And last month, Pepsi-Cola signed an agreement to produce soft drinks there. At the time the military reasserted its power in ’88, Myanmar’s foreign exchange reserves were down to less than $10 million. Today, the figure is $200 million to $300 million. No doubt the generals will be further rewarded after the elections.

The tragedy is that no matter who wins the elections, the losers seem to be the Burmese people--the people who braved the bullets in 1988.