Fractures In The Burmese Junta?

A hard-line faction is hurting attempts at image-polishing

When 200 thugs wielding rocks, sticks, and chains smashed up the motorcade of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in downtown Rangoon on Nov. 9, they shattered more than just windshields. They broke the illusion that Burma's military junta, which calls the nation Myanmar, is unified in its approach to keeping the country's opposition figure from taking power.

The attack indicates that within the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC), divisions have emerged over how to maintain strict order while attracting desperately needed foreign capital, staving off international sanctions, and improving the country's poor standing in the region. "Is the SLORC more desperate or more confident?" asks Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the New York-based Soros Foundation's Burma Project. "Quite possibly, we are seeing the first cracks."

The SLORC has one very powerful man who favors reaching out to the world in order to strengthen the junta's hold on the country. Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, Secretary-One of the ruling junta and head of military intelligence, initiated Burma's application to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the nation's attempts to lure foreign investment. He masterminded Visit Myanmar Year 1996, the just-launched, belated promotional campaign designed to improve Burma's image and rake in tourist dollars.

But Khin Nyunt's public-relations efforts are being undermined by hardliners, whose first priority is to silence Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, but Suu Kyi has been barred from taking power and has spent six years under house arrest. She has asked foreign businesses not to invest in Burma and tourists not to visit. Her outspokenness has outraged hardliners, who have threatened to "annihilate" her and her followers. Junta radicals were probably behind the attack on Suu Kyi, who was being guarded by Khin Nyunt's agents.

800 ARRESTED. Paradoxically, the hardliners are hurting themselves and inadvertently strengthening Suu Kyi's cause. Investors and tourists tend to avoid countries where mobs are on the loose, despite official policies to encourage visitors. The U.S., the European Union, and Japan have condemned the violence, adding momentum to the ongoing campaign for U.S. and EU sanctions. Thailand's Prime Minister-elect Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, long a friend of the junta, said publicly he will tell Burma's generals to change their ways. Thailand and the Philippines have expressed reservations about admitting Burma to ASEAN after the junta arrested 800 Suu Kyi supporters in September and blockaded her home.

Burma desperately needs money. The government is $6.6 billion in debt, with nearly $2 billion in arrears, according to the World Bank. With exports falling, there are signs the regime is having a cash flow problem. In September, it couldn't meet a $31 million payment to Mitsui Trading Corp. for oil, and it had to purchase fertilizer on credit from Unocal Corp. Only about one-third of the $3 billion in pledged total foreign investment has materialized so far. The currency--the kyat--officially 5.6 to the dollar, is worth about 165 on the black market.

Khin Nyunt might have brought in money, improved the economy slightly, and so propped up the junta. But because his fellow generals have staked out a violent position, Burma's isolation--and its people's suffering--will continue.

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