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The international outcry presumably has not gone unnoticed by Burma's generals, who have unveiled their impression of political reform a variety they call "discipline-flourishing democracy." On Sept. 3 the regime announced it had finally agreed to basic guidelines for a new constitution, 14 years after the generals summoned a national convention of handpicked delegates to draft a new charter. (The junta suspended the previous constitution in 1988.) But no timetable for elections has been set, nor is Suu Kyi's NLD part of the political process. Indeed, the new constitutional outline seems specifically designed to keep out Suu Kyi, long seen as the only leadership alternative to the junta despite her many years under house arrest. The national convention demands that the Prime Minister's position, for instance, must be held by someone with military experience, which Suu Kyi does not have. "It's a sham process that only legalizes the military's grip on power," says exiled dissident Khin Ohmar. "How can this be called democracy?"
The economic front is no better. Roughly 90% of the population lives near or below the poverty line, even though Burma is blessed with lucrative resources like natural gas and timber. The country's generals are hardly known for their financial savvy: one former regime chief denominated bank notes by the number nine simply because he considered the digit auspicious. Obsessed with its survival, the junta has dramatically expanded the military; 40% of the nation's annual budget is believed to be spent on the 450,000-strong army. Inflation is running at more than 30%. Last month's fuel hike led to a tripling of bus fares on some routes, leaving many of Rangoon's estimated 2.4 million commuters unable to afford their ride to work. The prices of basic foodstuffs like rice and eggs are also skyrocketing. "At this rate, even a meal every day might become a luxury," says housekeeper May Oo, who now spends 60% of her salary on her daily commute into Rangoon. Even upper-middle-class families are cutting back. Say Phaw Waa, a law student and daughter of a publishing-company executive, is considering joining a distance-learning program so her family won't have to shell out her bus fare to the university.
The hardships are made more painful by a widening wealth gap. The country's military leaders are leading ever more ostentatious lives, their wallets fattened by gas-pipeline deals with neighbors China, Thailand and India. The ruling class cruises around in luxury cars and cloisters itself in compounds ablaze with lights, even as most Burmese face constant electricity rationing. A samizdat video circulating in Rangoon shows junta chief Than Shwe's daughter, decked out in jewels, getting married in a lavish ceremony this in a country where the average annual per capita income is just $225. Even more galling, the junta turned a thicket of jungle into a brand new administrative capital in late 2005, a project that doubtless cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Today, Naypyidaw is an eerie landscape of broad, empty streets framed by behemoth government ministries. "It's a complete waste of money," says a senior journalist in Rangoon who asked not to be named for fear of being arrested. "The same money could have been used to meet the needs of the poor population."
The punishing economic situation may have one unexpected benefit: it could re-energize Burma's hobbled opposition, a motley crew of NLD politicians, '88-era student leaders and labor activists. After the democracy movement was crushed 19 years ago, many opposition leaders left for exile or went underground. Others, like Suu Kyi or poet turned activist Min Ko Naing, were jailed for long stretches. Burmese dissidents may have gained a martyr-like fame abroad, but their grand ideals of freedom and democracy resonated less with a public just struggling to feed itself. Yet in recent months, the opposition has started addressing such bread-and-butter issues more effectively and that could turn the current economic protests into a future base of political support. "Most Burmese have only known dictatorship, so when you talk about democracy it means nothing to them," says Mark Farmaner, acting director of Burma Campaign U.K. "But the opposition is now starting to explain, 'Democracy means accountability from leaders, and that means that generals can't drive luxury cars while you starve.' That message is striking a definite chord with the population."
Public support is paramount for protest leaders who are now on the run. "The wave of sympathy is in our favor," says one activist who has so far escaped the police dragnet. "You knock on a door late at night and whisper, 'Let me in, brother.' People willingly help us, even though they're well aware of the dire consequences." Still, the regime is doing its best to prevent further unrest and capture any stray dissidents. Trucks full of hired thugs patrol major street corners in Rangoon. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, says he has received reports that some of the arrested activists are being tortured. Buses to Thailand, where many dissidents fled back in '88, are being searched for activists on the run.
Despite the harsh condemnation from global leaders, no concrete action has so far been taken by the international community. A bipartisan team of U.S. lawmakers has written to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to call an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Burma. Without firm action from bodies like the U.N. or economic patrons like China, the members of Congress fear that Burma's generals may very well keep up their repressive ways, as they did back in '88. In the meantime, Burma's underground activists are asking for continued resistance from the nation's embattled populace. The latest effort, slated for three evenings this month, instructs Burmese to bang on pots, pans and other metal objects at 7:02 p.m., 8:01 p.m. and 9 p.m. all auspicious times that add up to the number nine so beloved by Burma's military brass. Organizers hope the cover of night will embolden more people to join the astrologically inspired noise campaign. Burma's long-suffering citizens can only hope the stars will finally align in their favor.