Monday, August 25, 1997

Go Ask SLORC, How Long They Can Stand the Strain?

Andreas Harsono

RANGOON - An American writer on Burma once said that Kyi Maung, 79, the vice chairman of the National League for Democracy, is the man most responsible for leading the NLD to its overwhelming victory in the election in May 1990 while other NLD leaders were in detention.

An elderly figure who cannot hide his fondness for good humour and philosophy, Kyi Maung is widely considered to be one of the most prominent members of the 10-strong NLD Central Executive Committee which includes chairman U Aung Shwe, Vice Chairman U Tin Oo, Secretary-General Aung San Suu Kyi and treasurer U Lwin.

At the outbreak of World War II, young Kyi Maung joined the Burma Independence Army and later rose to the rank of colonel. But he was forced into retirement while serving as the commander of the Southwestern Command after opposing the military takeover of 1962.

"His pension is very small. It's only 1,000 kyats," said wife Daw Kyi Kyi who offered part of their house for rent to a South Korean family to support the family. One American dollar at the market rate is currently worth about 230 kyat.

Kyi Maung, a veteran politician who was repeatedly imprisoned by successive Burmese military rulers for a total of about 12 years since his forced retirement in 1963, gave an exclusive interview to The Nation at his house in a lane off Kaba Aye Pagoda Road in Rangoon on Aug 14. 

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Has the July meeting between NLD chairman U Aung Shwe and SLORC First Secretary Gen Khin Nyunt produced some results?

I think it was a step forward. They have never talked to us like that day. It was very cordial. We considered the talk very significant. It came from Khin Nyunt.

Will further talks include Aung San Suu Kyi?

We have told them that in future talks if they decide that they should be meaningful - they cannot keep her out of the scene. Their perception of her is completely mistaken - that she is obstinate, strong headed. It is not true. She is quite reasonable.

But the Slorc said Suu Kyi has repeatedly outmaneouvered the other members of the Central Executive Committee of NLD?

It is not true. You could invite them to sit in our meeting while we are having discussions. No, she is committed to going along with the opinion of the majority.

They said in some cases the committee had agreed on something but she suddenly changed the decisions?

No, no, not at all. I cannot recall such a situation. If she does, I for one, would walk out of the committee. When we walked out of the National Convention in November 1995, they presumed that she was the instigator. Not at all. She did not utter one word. Check it with Tin Oo. She did not even utter one word.

What happened?

She was new to the National Convention. She was released in July. Problems had already arisen inside the National Convention. So U Aung Shwe said the situation was unworkable there. It was conducted like a meeting to present seminar papers. They were comedies. We could not be there. We really wanted to discuss all of these [issues] but we were never allowed to present our agenda. They accused her of being behind us.

What about Burma's membership in Asean?

If the NLD had become the government in 1990, we would have really wooed Asean to receive us.

Our objection to it was that Asean should delay Burma's membership under such an unaccountable government. They are an illegitimate government. We wanted them to be accountable. This government does not recognise the popular vote. On principle, we are not against Burma joining Asean. The only thing we are asking is to have its membership delayed until after there is a dialogue within the country. That is the reason behind it.

As for trade sanctions, we do not want Burma getting poorer. We want the democratic world to put pressure on them, ask them for democratic change. That was the idea behind it. Now that Burma-has became a member of Asean, we have to recognise the facts and the reality. And we do. It is now up to Asean to persuade them.

But how do you perceive the undemocratic nature of some Asean countries like Indonesia for instance? What I'm trying to say is that the Slorc is not alone in Asean. It has Indonesia as a model.

But Indonesia even has relatively a free press which allows its people's voice to be heard. But here? Don't only take Slorc's nine years in existence. You have to add 26 years of military rule in this country. [Slorc] is the continuation of the Ne Win regime [since 1962].

But they say they are different from Ne Win. Under Ne Win the economy was really bad. Now the economy is open. You can see flights coming into Rangoon everyday. Cars and new buildings are on the streets?

No, no, it is worse now. The price of petrol has been raised seven times, 720 per cent last month. I had my own experience. I sent out my boy to buy two bottles of ink. It costs me 300 kyat for the two. I use fountain pens. How much was it, let's say? five years ago? If it was available then, maybe within the range of 20 kyat.

The Slorc is suggesting that the military could have 26 per cent of the seats, permanent seats, in the future parliament in Burma just as the Indonesian generals have?

I don't think it is going to take place in this country because of the ethnic minorities. We hear, maybe wrongly, but we hear that the ethnic minorities would fight because 25 per cent of the seats would be applied in their areas too. The Kachins, the Chins are suspicious that the Burmese would grow stronger.

How could we solve the stalemate in Burma?

The problem here is not very difficult compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk. The situation here is very simple if you get to the root of this. When Slorc took power in 1988, in the aftermath of demonstrations which they suppressed violently, they said, "Alright, we're going to have polls." Then they set up the date, one-and a-half years away.

But the problem was that once the election was held and the party that won the majority was not theirs, they said we should draft the constitution first. They refused to hand over power. They established the National Convention only in 1992.

But then in the name of an open market economy they contacted foreign businessmen. They became richer and richer. They started to talk about keeping power. You can't compare this sort of scenario with the Indonesian scenario. There you have [Indonesian communist leader] D N Aidit who tried to stage a coup. I went to school in America with Gen Ahmad Yani. He was a close friend. Yani [Indonesian army chief in 1965] was killed during the coup and Suharto came to power. It is a different scenario. Here they are not keeping their original promises. These promises are their

You were arrested and harassed. You spent 12 years behind bars-seven during the Ne Win regime and another five under SLORC. Do you think you and your colleagues have the stamina to go on? Have you ever been tortured?

No, no, not on old person like me. But by the same question, you can ask Abel [Brig Gen David Oliver Abel, minister for National Planning and Economic Development] whether he could stand the stress? How long can he survive under the strain and the peace pressure? [giggling

Thailand is different. It could find someone who would come up with US$15 billion. Burma has great difficulty getting US$100 million.

In Indonesia, President Suharto has what is called the Berkeley Mafia, whose members advise him and work out the economy. But here? Abel?

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