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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

In Exile and Powerless
Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight
By DOMINIC FAULDER Bangkok

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Indonesia: Walking on a Tightrope
Unrest against the military revives the debate over civil and military power in Indonesia. But a bigger question is: Will disillusionment and division jeopardize the presidential poll?
• When Enemies Become Allies
• A Battle Being Fought
• Back in the Thick of It

China: Right Down the Middle
On the economy, Jiang Zemin wants it fast and slow
• Party Time - for Some

Taiwan: Shocks and Aftershocks
The political effects of the eartquake will be more enduring

Malaysia's Electoral Pivot
Barisan and the opposition court the Chinese

Korea: A Borderline Decision
Behind North Korea's move to push its sea frontier south

Myanmar: In Exile and Powerless
Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight

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Selling Myanmar's tough line to the world: ASIAWEEK's interview with Win Aung (09/03/99)

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The power of Myanmar's area commanders (09/03/99)

The Asiaweek Power 50 1999: Aung San Suu Kyi
The Asiaweek Power 50 Online: Who are the most powerful people in Asia?

"The military in Rangoon are in a state of high paranoia, and in some cases near hysteria." So charged a political activist at a recent news conference in Bangkok. Excitedly, she recited the usual mantra of Burmese dissidents: spiraling food prices in Myanmar, discontented rank and file soldiers, a seething populace. Foreign- based activists repeatedly claim that a "mass movement" drawing from this deep well of grievances will finally push Myanmar's widely reviled junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), from power.

Despite the clatter outside Myanmar's borders, the opposition-in-exile has been pretty ineffective. Within the country, things have been relatively quiet, with few signs that people are organizing a widespread revolt - let alone believing it could actually happen. The military has a stranglehold and doesn't look like it's about to make any concessions. If economic duress is an indicator for social upheaval, something would have happened a long time ago. The country remains bankrupt, with rice prices soaring in recent weeks and the kyat plummeting to around 360 to the U.S. dollar. A news agency reported Bogyoke Market in Yangon to be "virtually devoid of shoppers." Said one merchant: "We're mostly sitting down and twiddling our thumbs. This has never happened before."

Yet, in recent weeks, junta spokesmen have been unusually feisty, blasting their detractors in cyberspace with four-letter words, ruminating at the U.N. General Assembly, wooing the Australians on human rights, and engaging in rare public debates. "Democracy is a very delicate flower," Myanmar's ambassador to Britain, Kyaw Win, explained to the British Broadcasting Corp. "It doesn't grow easily anywhere, and is not easily transplantable."

Back home, it's business as usual. Not a day passes without the junta announcing "voluntary" resignations from Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy. Last week, it was 55 NLD members in Salin township in the southern part of the country. Said one official:"They no longer wished to participate in party politics of the NLD." The "proof" was their resignation letters. If nothing else, tallying the daily purges proves the NLD still enjoys remarkably strong support in great adversity. By an official account, 29 of the 392 NLD MPs have died, and 107 are imprisoned or detained.

With the opposition inside Myanmar largely bottled up, much of the resistance to the junta is expressed overseas. Thailand harbors hundreds of Myanmar's political dissidents. A veritable alphabet soup of groups - concentrated in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot - vie for the limelight in their battle for democracy. Further complicating the picture is a slew of foreign and local non-governmental organizations. The inability to create any change in Myanmar suggests exiled activists have lost touch with the public mood back home. However discontented with chronic misgovernment they might be, people are simply unprepared to "go under the gun" to create change. "[The military] knows their profession," says Tin Maung Win of the Democratic Alliance of Burma, one of the exile groups. "They shoot to kill." Meanwhile, the political stalemate continues to drag the country backward.

The demands the dissidents abroad are making remain unchanged: primarily, to release all political prisoners and engage in dialogue with the NLD, which won a landslide in the 1990 election. However many of Myanmar's people might support such a demand, events in the past few months have shown that they feel safer to remain passive. Two British activists certainly paid heavily for daring to protest. James Mawdsley, 26, a three-time "repeat offender," and Rachel Goldwyn, 28, were slammed with stiff sentences last month.

Still, it's not just foreigners who are active. In August, the Thailand-based All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) had announced that the numerically significant "four-nines" day, 9/9/99, would mark "the beginning of a wave of force that would topple the regime." Eleven years earlier on Aug. 8, 1988, or 8/8/88, mass demonstrations erupted that were eventually put down with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives. Little happened on this Sept. 9, however - at least in Myanmar. The military made sure of that by deploying extra police in the capital, shutting roads and arresting up to 500 people. Curfews and tourist visa bans were imposed. In Thailand, dissidents held protests. "We never expected people to come out on to the streets like in 1988," said the ABSDF's Moe The Zun. "This was a good time to remind the Burmese people to continue their struggle for democracy." But the struggle will need more than just a reminder to succeed.

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