As far as tyrants go, Gen. Than Shwe is something of a chameleon. The 70-year-old leader of Burma's ruling junta gave up socialism for a system of state-sponsored corruption. He dabbled with democracy, agreeing to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest several times during the 1990s as the junta pondered giving her National League for Democracy a role in government. But the general showed his true colors last week by tossing Suu Kyi and top NLD leaders back in jail. "The junta's afraid they cannot control her," says a Thai Army general who watches Burma closely, "so they [felt they] had to stop her now."
The regime had been embarrassed by crowds flocking to see Suu Kyi on a swing through northern Burma, and made its move after clashes between pro-government thugs and followers of Suu Kyi left dozens dead or wounded. When the junta released her from house arrest in May 2002, it was no doubt hoping to encourage the lifting of crippling international sanctions. Instead Suu Kyi held out for real reform, and in the meantime traveled the country reopening offices of the NLD. Last October the junta cut off talks. The crowds that greeted Suu Kyi were subjected to increasing harassment from the Army and police.
Supporters of Suu Kyi say the authorities acted now because they realized they'd opened a Pandora's box. The NLD won a landslide election in 1990 but was never allowed to take power, and more than a decade of crackdowns had apparently not dimmed its support. As Suu Kyi crisscrossed the country in recent months, the crowds swelled; some people walked several miles just to get a glimpse of her. She became increasingly bold, publicly chastising the generals for not beginning dialogue, and just last month she repeated the opposition demand that the junta accept the outcome of the 1990 election. "In the last six weeks Gen. Than Shwe has become increasingly concerned at the visual evidence of her overwhelming acceptance and popularity among the people of Burma," says Janelle Saffin, a spokeswoman for the opposition's Thailand-based government in exile.
The incident that sparked the violence is hotly disputed. Burmese officials claim pro-government supporters and NLD activists suddenly engaged in late-night clashes on May 30 near the northern town of Ye-u, and that Suu Kyi was taken into "protective custody" after four people were killed and 50 wounded. They deny that the NLD leader, known and widely revered in Burma as "The Lady," was injured.
Opposition groups, witnesses and Western and Asian diplomats tell a different story. According to several similar accounts, a military-backed political group that included armed soldiers and ex-prisoners wielding bamboo sticks attacked a motorcade carrying Suu Kyi and hundreds of supporters as it approached Ye-u. The attackers blocked the road with logs and charged the motorcade, opening fire into the cars. Foreign embassies could not confirm the death toll, but opposition officials claim about 70 people were killed and dozens wounded.
U Tin Oo, the NLD vice chairman, was --feared to have been severely wounded in the attack, and his whereabouts remain unknown. Suu Kyi is being held at an undisclosed location, possibly the Yemon military camp outside Rangoon. The junta has closed NLD offices nationwide, cut phone lines to Suu Kyi's Rangoon home and shuttered universities indefinitely to prevent possible student uprisings. Burmese Foreign Ministry officials faced a firestorm of criticism when they met with Asian and Western diplomats last week to tell their side of the story. One Western diplomat based in Rangoon says, "There was not a single person in the room satisfied by their explanations, especially that Aung San Suu Kyi should be held for her safety."
In ordering the crackdown, Than Shwe may have overruled moderate junta members who favor a negotiated political settlement that would ease the country's international isolation and economic decline. This year the Burmese kyat, officially pegged at 6.5 to the dollar, has fallen to 1,400 on the unofficial free market. Once considered a jewel of Asia, Burma now ranks 127 out of 173 countries on the U.N. index of social development, with incomes averaging a meager $300 per year. Than Shwe may be calculating that Burma no longer has the luxury of waiting for sanctions to be lifted. "They are at a crossroads," says Gothom Arya of Forum Asia, a regional human-rights group, "either to mend their relationships with the West and hope for some investment to come, or to show firmness because economic difficulties can snowball into domestic political upheaval."
Regional actors like China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which have traditionally been loath to pressure the Burmese regime, may be losing patience with its unsavory behavior. Now, some analysts say, those Asian powers are likely to support the United States, United Nations and European Union in posing an ultimatum: reconcile with Suu Kyi and move toward democracy, or become a pariah state like North Korea. The U.N. special envoy to Burma was there over the weekend, demanding to see Suu Kyi and calling on the the world to step up pressure on the junta. But is it too late to influence the generals? "That's the million-dollar question," says Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy magazine, which covers Burma from Thailand. "The scar is now so deep. They'd have to undergo special cosmetic surgery to save face on this one." Changing colors won't be enough.