THE mighty Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is continually being repaired by Burma's faithful who smooth gold leaf over its Buddha images and the ornate architecture that adorn it. A few kilometres away the country's widely despised military junta was said earlier this week to be just as vigorously engaged in gilding its brutal rule with a democratic veneer. Some 700 cowed delegates gathered behind the high red brick walls of a sports institute to conduct a convention the ruling generals said would lead the country back to multi-party democracy. It was cut short, for reasons yet to be explained. But much further away, in the remote malarial jungle along the border with Thailand, the many and varied ranks of the bruised but defiant opposition have denounced the convention as a sham. Manerplaw, its back to the Moei river and the border with Thailand, is the jungle capital of the ''independent'' Karen state Kawthoolei whose people have been fighting the central authorities in Rangoon for 43 years. It is also host to Burma's government-in-exile whose prime minister Dr Sein Win told the South China Morning Post: ''The convention has no real meaning. The regime invited only people who dare not question the military's control of Burmese politics. Quite clearly it will not solve any of Burma's problems.'' It's quick closure seemed to prove his point. Dr Sein Win and his colleagues spend much of their ample spare time exploring the disintegration of the Burmese economy under the generals, the madness of Mr Ne Win, the octogenarian who still rules from behind the scenes, and the supposed loathing inside the regime of Mr Ne Win's apparent successor, the intelligence chief, Major-General Khin Nyunt. Yet amidst the chunky fighters of the ethnic minorities, the strutting former students in their jungle greens and the grab-bag of earnest intellectuals, doctors and lawyers who have found themselves thrown together by harsh necessity, it is possible tosense a quiet desperation. ''This is going to be a very very hard year,'' said Mr Bo Mya, the veteran president of the Karen National Union, as he stared at the forbiddingly steep hills beyond which the Burmese army is encamped. The junta, flush with a billion dollar's worth of Chinese weaponry, is probably stronger than ever and appears poised to launch a final assault on Manerplaw from where democratic forces have defied Rangoon for 20 years. THE Burmese economy may indeed be in a diabolical mess and some of Rangoon's powerful field commanders may well resent Major-General Khin Nyunt's desk-bound rise to power, but there has been no open sign the junta is starting to crumble. The Rangoon convention was supposed to draw up the principles of a new constitution which would later be drafted by those members of parliament who have not been locked up, killed or chased out of the country by a military determined to maintain a three-decade grip on power. Cynics say the ''constitution'' is already written. It probably doesn't matter: last Saturday the convenor of the conference Major-General Myo Nyunt spent half of a long opening speech reminding delegates to enshrine the military's leading role in Burmese politics. Noticeably the opening was boycotted by the West. But China, Japan, India and Southeast Asian neighbours including Thailand sent envoys. The beleaguered opposition sees no real change coming. ''Don't you believe it. This is a gangster-controlled country. Who ever heard of gangsters giving up power,'' said Mr Win Khet, a ''liberated area'' organising chairman for the National League for Democracy, the party that won 80 per cent of the vote in 1990's election, later rejected by Mr Ne Win. The exiles plot and plan and wait for an opportunity to strike back. But with what? Full-blown opposition inside the country is met with fierce repression. There's much talk of international isolation, a new human-rights-orientated United States president in Bill Clinton and general unhappiness across the land. But not even the optimists among the opposition are predicting the early downfall of the regime. Around a third of Burma's population consists of a collection of people's, who by dint of distance and a lack of cultural affinity have, through history, been only occasionally subject to Rangoon's writ. Late at night last week members of the half-dozen ethnic groups locking horns with the Burmese army, privately pitied their democratic Burman brethren. ''They've come here thinking that it'll be all over in a few months. That by sticking up a few sheds and calling themselves the opposition the regime would magically collapse,'' said one cynical Karen soldier. THE Karen reckon that SLORC has around 280,000 soldiers. (Higher estimates made elsewhere may include the police.) They claim 12,000 soldiers of their own and say the Kachin in the far north may have 10,000 men under arms, the Mon in the south perhaps 4,000 and the hard-pressed Karenni some 2,000 troops. There are thought to be little more than 1,000 former students now actively engaged with the enemy. There is much suspicion and no little bitterness among the non-Burmese fighters that despite much vague talk of federalism and a place for all in a democratic Burma, no ethnic groups are represented in the 11-man cabinet of the government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. Some members of the coalition government have claimed that a cabinet of elected members of parliament hounded out of Rangoon after the 1990 election provides important international legitimacy. But the ethnic groups scoff at this, saying it has saddled the opposition with a lacklustre leadership composed of effete intellectuals with minimal political experience. There are also the nagging doubts about how deep the Burmese democratic elite's commitment to federalism really is. No Burmese constitution, whether legal or imposed, has ever encompassed the country with full-blown federalism. Burma expert Mr Bertil Lintner has written: ''Rangoon's unwillingness to find an actual political solution to the country's civil war can be explained by the fact that the military has a vested interest in continuing the conflict.'' How else to justify the economic disaster, the huge army where no outside threat exists, the omnipresent government informers, the misery. Bitter though the political infighting may be inside the opposition there is no quibbling, even after dusk and several pots of palm wine, that the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains the pivotal figure in the fight to defeat the junta. She possesses the ''charisma, frankness and common sense'' of her father, the independence hero Aung San who was assassinated soon after the birth of modern Burma. Speculation that by refusing to touch tainted junta assistance she may be approaching a hunger strike is worrying, but also shows that there are other than military ways of hurting the junta. Dr Sein Win may be seen by his critics in the opposition to be leading a government-in-exile distinctly lacking in tactical vision, there is much agreement when he says ''whatever problems we have to overcome in the days ahead we know the people's hatred of the generals is seeping into the regime, weakening it, and will one day cause them to fall.''