Burma Under Bloody Siege

As a country explodes, a despised leader falls

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From Mandalay in the central plain to Moulmein on the Andaman Sea, Burma burst into flames last week, the spark provided by protest and bloodshed, the oxygen by rumor. In Sagaing, a city of 70,000 in the center of the country, security forces opened up with shotguns on a crowd of 5,000 that was converging on a police station, and 31 people were reported killed. In the suburbs of Rangoon, the capital, three policemen were reported to have been beheaded by enraged mobs. Word of mutinies by military units in the north and east flickered through the country like fire on a trail of gunpowder. In Rangoon protesters against the regime of recently installed President Sein Lwin begged motorists for gasoline to make Molotov cocktails. Others marched through the streets in grisly corteges, bearing aloft the bodies of demonstrators killed by security forces.

For five days last week, violence engulfed much of Burma, a country peopled by devout Buddhists averse to bloodletting, in a spontaneous eruption of discontent that rocked a despised government to its foundations. Then, just as the surge of clashes ebbed slightly -- as if both sides were catching their breath -- the protesters won what they had set out to achieve, the resignation of Sein Lwin (pronounced sane lwin), 64, a hard-line retired general who had succeeded longtime Strongman Ne Win only 17 days earlier. No explanation accompanied the Radio Rangoon announcement of the President's resignation beyond a brief mention that he had also given up chairmanship of the Burma Socialist Program Party, the country's sole political organization. Who would take his place remained a mystery, but there was speculation that General Kyaw Htin, a respected former chief of staff and Defense Minister, was in control; he had signed the resignation announcement.

The upheaval left Burma's 38 million people in a volatile, though temporarily quiet state, with the party still confronted by an opposition at $ once broad based and emboldened by success. Desperately grasping to save its crumbling legitimacy, the party announced a special meeting of its Central Committee and of the People's Assembly this Friday to address the crisis. Among observers in Rangoon, a wary optimism prevailed. "There is a small glimmer of hope after years of gathering darkness," was the way one Western diplomat put it. "Maybe the country has turned a corner -- and that's a big maybe."

By the time Sein Lwin fell, the official death toll in the disturbances had risen to 98, though foreign diplomats in Rangoon placed the figure at several times that number. Unofficial estimates held that more than 1,000 protesters had been killed by security forces and that many thousands more had suffered injuries.

The fall of Sein Lwin, frequently described as the "most hated man in Burma" because of his brutal handling of past antigovernment outbursts, could mark the end of a 26-year era of one-party rule. Since Ne Win, then head of the Burmese army, seized power in 1962 and replaced democracy with autocracy, virtually all political expression has been suppressed in something of a perpetual purge, the sole exception being the Burma Socialist Program Party.

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