SLORC under another name


By Maung Maung Than

When Burma's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) changed its name last year to State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), some regarded it as a coup against the old guard; some even hoped for a return of democracy.

But it did not take long to realise that the new regime is exactly the same as the previous one. The four main leaders of the SLORC still reign in the SPDC.

"You are too naive if you expect drastic changes from the regime with a new name, because it is the same group of butchers", said Ye Myint Htun, secretary of the All Burma Student Democratic Organisation.

The same military men, led by General Ne Win, maintained their ruthless control over the Burmese people for three decades. During this time, Burma, once a comparatively rich country, became one of the least developed.

In a recent interview, General Than Shwe said: "The previous name of SLORC meant [it was necessary] to deal with the country's chaotic situation, but now we are going to focus on peace and development".

But the regime is notorious for not keeping its word. In the name of peace, the military rulers have launched an offensive against the armed Burmese resistance groups.

Several ethnic forces entered into a cease-fire agreement with the regime, hoping to move towards self-determination. However, the final agreement was limited to only two points: to stop the fighting and to develop the ethnic area.

The ethnic leaders have been demoralised and degraded. Some have been assassinated by agents of the regime. The remaining ethnic and student forces are refusing to yield to the regime's demand for their total surrender in the name of "peace".

The military is virtually at war with the whole population. There is no peace, even in the urban areas, where people are being forcibly rounded up to serve on the front line as porters and mine-sweepers. Millions of labourers are working at gun-point for so-called development projects.

In early January, the National League for Democracy (NLD) urged the public to continue to be alert and to keep fighting for democracy.

A few days after the formation of the SPDC, several former officers, including three government ministers, were arrested on corruption charges. According to Ye Myint Tun, however, this was "merely finding scapegoats in the power struggle between the factions in the ruling military clique, not a reform for democratisation".

On December 12, the junta summoned five senior leaders of NLD to a meeting. Not included were the NLD's general secretary, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other top leaders. Hopes were raised, however, because it was the first time that the junta had met officially with opposition leaders.

After the meeting, however, the NLD leaders said the junta would talk only about restrictions on NLD activities and on Aung San Suu Kyi.

"The junta is not sincere. It was not a meeting; it was scolding the NLD", said Tin Oo, NLD vice-president. "We will not meet with them again if we cannot discuss the national political agenda with people who can make decisions."

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the opposition and the regime has been escalating and Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest for the second time.

ASEAN's acceptance of Burma as a full member last July has made matters worse. This gave the junta both financial support and political recognition.

Burma's efforts to gain a seat in the Asia-Europe Summit in London in July will be another test of the international community's support for democracy and human rights in Burma.

The US, Canada and the European Union are putting pressure on the regime, including the imposition by the US of sanctions on future investment. But Australian companies are now throwing their money into Burma instead, creating a major loophole in international efforts to isolate the regime.

Last year, Brisbane-based Pacrim Energy signed a contract with the regime to explore for oil in upper Burma, and many more companies are on their way to Burma. They argue that the Australian government's policy of "constructive engagement" with the Burmese regime does not preclude business deals.

[Maung Maung Than is a Burmese student in exile in Australia.]