U.S. CAN'T BE EVEN-HANDED IN BURMA

ROMNEY, W. VA.

IF IT WERE NOT FOR THE BRUTALITY DISPLAYED BY NE WIN'S LATEST PUPPET, GEN. SAW MAUNG, AND THE TRAGEDY OF COUNTLESS CASUALTIES, EVENTS IN BURMA WOULD RECALL AN EVELYN WAUGH SATIRE: FOUR GOVERNMENTS IN TWO MONTHS - AND THE CURRENT ONE HEADING TOWARD SELF-DESTRUCTION.

IN BURMA, WHERE MILITARY RULERS HAVE FAILED MISERABLY AT EVERY TASK, SAVE RUNNING A STOCKADE, THEY STILL SEEK TO RULE A POPULACE THAT HAS EXHAUSTED ITS PATIENCE AND WILLINGNESS TO COMMIT NATIONAL SUICIDE.The demonstrators may be defenseless today - but not for long.

It is hard for the world to understand what has been happening.

Travel into and out of Burma has all but been eliminated, a free press does not exist, and contacts between Burmese and foreigners have been regulated rigorously.

In 1965, when I was in Rangoon, the rot in government and economic life was apparent. The kyat, the currency, was almost worthless; in official exchange it commanded only about one-fifth the open black market rate (it is currently reported as being worth far less).

Bazaars and street stalls were empty of consumer goods except for occasional radios, wristwatches and cigarette lighters all smuggled in from Bangkok.

Foods, including rice, were scarce; the few scrawny chickens available were good only for curries. In the people's stores, run by the government, all of the shelves were just as empty.

Burma, Asia's productive rice basket before World War II, had become an economic basketcase.

The initiative to produce had disappeared under the Burmese socialism, probably the most cockamamie economic system of the 20th century.

The populace has suffered economic hardship, but the military has had its own golf course in Rangoon, its own fleet of Mercedes limousines, and assured sources of supply from trips abroad.

The damage of authoritarian rule is usually measured by torture and deprivation of human rights.

But another harmful and long-lasting effect has occurred in Burma: The country is almost completely bereft of qualified leaders.

The names in the press - Sein Lwin, Tin Oo, U Aung Gyi, Maung Maung, U Nu - are old hat.

Some, especially the military, never knew how to lead a civilian enterprise. Some are too old. Still others never had the opportunity to appear before an electorate, which in any case is nonexistent.

It will be years before leadership develops and stability returns.

This is one time the United States is not directly involved (until questions begin to surface about where the guns and ammunition used against protestors came from).

We no longer have strategic interests to protect that limit our diplo-matic maneuverability, nor do we any longer need to be in Burma to watch the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Vietnamese.

The only reason we are in Burma, save for "showing the flag," is to maintain its cooperation in curbing drug traffic in the so-called golden triangle. That interest, if necessary, can be pursued from elsewhere.

It is hard to understand why Washington is so slow to cut off aid and is bending over backward to be publicly even-handed.

Admonishing both sides hardly seems fair: The protestors are the aggrieved party.

The State Department should declare its abhorrence of Burma's uncivilized conduct. We should provide emergency humanitarian assistance, but we should end all other assistance, especially to the bloated military.