Burma Frees Top Dissident, 1,700 Others; Thousands March For Democracy
RANGOON, Burma (AP) _ Authorities on Thursday released Burma’s top dissident and nearly 1,700 anti-government protesters, and hundreds of thousands more rallied to demand immediate democracy, rejecting the president’s proposal to consider multiparty rule.
Dissident Aung Gyi left Insein Jail, quickly organized a rally of about 200,000 people, and demanded an interim government be formed to lead the nation to democracy.
On Wednesday, President Maung Maung bowed to three days of mass protests against one-party rule and called for a referendum on multiparty democracy. The leader - the nation’s third in five weeks - lifted martial law imposed Aug. 3 in Rangoon, withdrew troops from the city center and lifted curfews throughout the country.
But to the people in the streets Thursday, the moves clearly were insufficient.
About 400,000 people marched through the streets of the capital demanding the government give the people democracy immediately, witnesses said. Diplomats earlier said up to 1 million people marched in the city Wednesday.
Anti-government demonstrators controlled Victoria Point, the southernmost town in Burma, and student leaders claimed similar takeovers were occurring throughout the country.
About 300 workers, merchants and students marched through Victoria Point, and one student said Maung Maung’s promise of democracy was ″a political trick.″
Aung Gyi addressed a hastily arranged rally at Padonma Ground, where public stage shows are held. It is near his home in the Sanchaung area of the capital.
″We have complete trust in President Maung Maung and Chairman of the Council of People’s Justices Tin Aung Hein,″ he said. Both men are civilians in the military-dominated government.
But Aung Gyi added: ″I demand Maung Maung and Tin Aung Hein form an interim government immediately to avoid anarchy and bloodshed in the country.″
″We agree 3/8″ the crowd shouted.
Aung Gyi, a former army brigadier, was a close associate of former strongman Ne Win, but they split over differences in economic policy.
Ne Win led the 1962 coup that toppled the elected government. He began one- party rule and imposed rigid socialist and isolationist policies that turned one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations into one of its poorest.
When Ne Win, 77, resigned last month as chairman of the 1.1 million-member party he cited his age and took indirect responsibility for violent riots in March and June.
He said the rioting ″showed the lack of trust and confidence in the government″ and called for a referendum on multiparty rule.
Sein Lwin, a former army general widely hated for crushing dissent, succeeded Ne Win on July 27 and moved quickly against his opposition. He resigned Aug. 12 after at leat 112 people were killed when troops fired into crowds of anti-government demonstrators.
Aung Gyi, 70, recently wrote a series of letters decrying economic and political decay under the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, and specifically mentioned Sein Lwin.
Aung Gyi, this reporter and eight others were arrested on July 29-30.
Sein Lwin was succeeded Aug. 19 by Maung Maung, who had been attorney general.
After his detention, Aung Gyi’s name became a rallying cry of some of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to condemn Sein Lwin, and later, to demand that Maung Maung move toward multiparty democracy.
Earlier Thursday, heading home from Insein Jail, people shouted for democracy without any official hindrance for the first time in 26 years.
The atmosphere was festive. The sea of people and horn-honking vehicles and the absence of police and soldiers snarled traffic in the city center and made movement difficult.
Many people wore red headbands, and the national flag was flying upside down, both symbols of defiance.
Government ministries were open but nearly empty, with no senior officials at their desks and the few junior employees on hand doing little work. Some local government offices were deserted after they had been ransacked by mobs.
Banners on buildings and vehicles, including some government cars, called for peaceful protest to bring about an immediate end to one-party rule.
No newspapers were available because workers at all six state-run dailies struck Wednesday to demand democracy and press freedom.
State-run Radio Rangoon said 1,683 protesters were released Thursday from Insein Jail. It said all others arrested nationwide since Aug. 3 in connection with the rioting would be freed except those accused of serious crimes.
Those freed Thursday included 442 students, 78 government employees and 27 Buddhist monks. The release brought to more than 2,500 the number of people freed, but it was not known how many remain in jail.
Maung Maung said Wednesday he would ask the party at an emergency congress soon to consider a referendum on multiparty rule, which could lead to general elections. Radio Rangoon said the meeting would be Sept. 12.
He said if the party refuses he and the 13 other members of the Central Executive Committee would resign from the party.
In another development Thursday, Gen. Bo Mya, head of one of Burma’s most powerful rebel groups, the Karens, said a democratic government in Rangoon would be only a first step towards ending the 40-year-old civil war.
He said in Bangkok, Thailand, that his 17,000 guerrillas and other rebel groups were ordered to step up attacks against the government.