Words of hope reverberate across Burma

Rangoon - As long as the generals who rule Burma by fear control the media, Burmese will never read a speech by the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the newspapers.

Yet the day after Ms Suu Kyi delivered an address vowing to increase opposition to the military government in response to the arrests of hundreds of her supporters, most of Rangoon's 4 million people knew exactly what she had said. And they loved every word of it.

"It was a fantastic speech. She was more defiant than usual," Thein Nyunt, a mechanic, said yesterday. "I was too afraid to go. But my father went and taped it, and I think it was great."

The people of Burma appreciate the defiance of the Oxford-educated Ms Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent promotion of democracy. But they are afraid to show too much open support, remembering that the military dictatorship gunned down hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988.

Though up to 10,000 people gathered outside her home on Sunday for her usual weekend speech - the greatest show of public support since her release last July from six years of house arrest - millions more stayed at home. Fear runs so deep in Rangoon that the army has not even called out extra soldiers, despite the political tension. As monsoon rains swept the palm- lined roads yesterday, the city went about its business as usual.

But some of the few Burmese ready to risk speaking to foreigners commented in the dank shop houses and crowded tearooms that the only topic of conversation was Sunday's speech. Like Thein Nyunt, they had heard it on tape.

Ms Suu Kyi and fellow leaders of her National League for Democracy fired stinging rebukes against the authorities for arresting nearly all the delegates to the party's most important conference in six years. They demanded that the opposition victory in parliamentary elections in May 1990 finally be recognised.

"Giving into bullying is not good," Ms Suu Kyi said. "We must have the courage to face the bully's challenge."

Scores of people, some holding as as many as half a dozen cassette-recorders, taped her words. The tapes made it around the city before morning, and others will penetrate the countryside in a few days. They also reach the desks of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc).

As the authorities replay the words, they will not like what they hear - through the poor sound quality come applause and cheers.

The state-controlled press yesterday called Ms Suu Kyi a "maggot" and tool of a United States conspiracy to colonise Burma by introducing democracy and human rights. The people, the press says, love and support the junta.

But what do the people say? "They are bullies," said a young woman in a print shop, echoing Ms Suu Kyi's speech. She refused to give her name, fearing arrest.

"MI are always listening," said a tour guide, referring to Military Intelligence. "You must always be careful what you say, because you never know who they are."

Ms Suu Kyi said this weekend she feels the Burmese may be too paranoid - but they had good reason "because of the sheer number of Military Intelligence people running around".

The climate of fear is represented in Burma's currency black market. The official exchange rate for the kyat is six for $1. On the black market, the kyat was recently trading at 139 per dollar. Rumours that the military had blocked off streets to Ms Suu Kyi's home caused the kyat to plummet.

"Business is bad. I lost 100,000 kyats this weekend," said an Indian- Burmese woman who changes money in the back of her grocery shop. Though the black market is no secret, it remains illegal.

"People liked the speech, but they don't expect any change," said the currency trader. "Nobody can make this government do anything they don't want to do. They have all the guns."

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