Burma inches out from under the general's shadow: The military has taken a slow road to change, writes Tim McGirk in Rangoon

BURMA'S military regime is so secretive that foreign diplomats in Rangoon are forced to search for omens of political change in banknotes.

New currency notes for 50, 100 and 500 kyats have appeared, which in any other country would be no cause at all for surprise. In the past, however, the Burmese have had to live with awkward 45 kyat and 90 kyat notes.

Timid though it may seem, the switch to decimal currency notes is interpreted by foreign observers as the first sign that the military council is trying to free Burma from the grip of General Ne Win, aged 84, who reigned through astrology and the secret police.

Astrologers deemed that the number nine and its combinations was auspicious for General Ne Win, the eccentric 'strongman' whose shadow has darkened Burmese politics for the past 30 years. He retired in 1988, confronted by a popular uprising. But his quirky obesessions - which have crippled one of Asia's potentially richest countries - are still obeyed and humoured by the country's ruling military council.

The military junta, or State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), has kept the General's repressive apparatus intact, but it is trying to shed his legendary xenophobia by opening up the economy to foreigners. Changing the money, as one Burma-watcher said, 'is tantamount to admitting the old man is mad'.

For years to come, though, the Burmese must still endure driving on the right side of the road, after soothsayers decreed that the left side was unlucky for General Ne Win. Such dottiness could be overlooked, if not for his strange and destructive statecraft. Much of Burma's legendary wealth - besides oil, rubies, and jade, its golden pagodas and idols are said to contain more precious metal than the Bank of England's vaults - has been squandered through his 'Buddhist-socialism'.

General Ne Win has embroiled Burma in endless wars with its ethnic minorities. He terrorised the Burmese into submission with a network of spies and informers. And, he left behind a legacy in which 75 per cent of children never progress beyond primary school, and government clerks must moonlight as rickshaw- cyclists so that their families do not starve. As one Rangoon shopkeeper calculated: 'In a family of six, four people must work just to pay for food.'

It is doubtful, too, that Burma's most famous prisoner - the 1991 Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi - will ever be freed by the military council while General Ne Win is alive. Ms Suu Kyi, who campaigned for democracy and human rights, called General Ne Win a 'fascist'. It is believed that the General, furious at the insult, personally ordered Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's most famous nationalist hero, to be placed under house arrest in July 1989

Today, nearly five years on, Ms Suu Kyi, 48, remains confined to her Rangoon family home. In an irony that the Burmese love to point out, she lives directly across the lake from the mansion where General Ne Win, too, is under a form a detention. Ms Suu Kyi is trapped there by the military council, while the General's confinement is voluntary, out of fear - he knows that for all the Buddhist pagodas he may build in penance, the Burmese still hate him.

In many other regimes, the generals would have merely cut off the telephone line to General Ne Win's mansion and rid themselves of the nuisance. But in Burma's deep- rooted Buddhist culture, the elderly are held in respect and never challenged. In addition, many of the council generals were hand-picked by General Ne Win. 'It's inconceivable that anyone in the military would do anything to offend the old gentleman,' one foreign observer said.

The military council's biggest dilemma is what to do with Ms Suu Kyi. If she is released, she threatens the junta's control of Burma. Even after her arrest, her National League for Democracy party swept the 1990 elections. But the council simply ignored the results, stayed in power, and either jailed her closest followers or drove them into exile.

Once free, Ms Suu Kyi would renew her demands for democracy. Her party may have fragmented, but she is revered by nearly all Burmese; in 30 years she is the only person who openly defied General Ne Win. Even the government press dares not critise her too much. Instead, it treats her as a kind of misguided daughter.

Yet, if Ms Suu Kyi is kept under arrest, Burma will fail to win the international support - and funds - it craves. Britain, the United States and many other countries have refused to aid Burma, unless Ms Suu Kyi is released - along with at least 2,000 other political prisoners. In February, she was allowed to break the silence of her confinement to meet a US congressman. She revealed that the generals had offered to release her provided she left Burma (her husband, Michael Aris, is British). She refused. 'That is never going to happen,' she said.

However, she said she was prepared to negotiate anything - even her withdrawal from politics - as long as she could remain in the country. As one foreign observer remarked: 'It's no good keeping her locked up. They have to do a deal with her.'

In the meantime, the military council is trying to weaken Ms Suu Kyi's power base. It has reached ceasefire agreements with 10 of the 13 armed insurgent groups operating in the outer edges of the country. The council last year also set up a convention to re-draft Burma's archaic constitution.

Many of Ms Suu Kyi's allies have been co-opted into the convention, which Burmese dissidents and foreign diplomats dismiss as a facade enabling the army to retain its grip on the country. Several Asian countries not bothered by the junta's human rights abuses are already broadening their trade and diplomatic ties with Burma. But genuine democratic change may take years at the junta's slow rate.

'The Burmese have a slow biological clock,' one international observer said. 'The junta could conceivably take a quarter of a century to move towards democracy.' It is only Ms Suu Kyi's defiant presence across the lake from their aged autocrat, General Ne Win, that is making waves with the council's generals.

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