Life in limbo for a Myanmar exile
By A Lin Neumann
CHIANG MAI, Thailand - When Min Zin was 14, he and his friends were making newspapers by hand, literally. They etched characters into inked wax paper and rolled fluorescent-light tubes over the impressions in a crude homemade duplicating process. The results, distributed free of charge on the streets of Rangoon (now Yangon), were the only independent publications in the country.
This was not a school handicraft project. The year was 1988 and Min Zin was involved in the deadly serious business of revolution against a dictatorship in Burma. As one of the youngest and most prominent leaders of the pro-democracy rebellion, Min Zin was making speeches, organizing students, printing underground political broadsheets and risking his life for democratic change.
"Of course, we were naive," Min Zin says now of his days as a street-corner propagandist. "All we knew was that these were bad guys and we wanted new leaders."
During those heady months of the 1988 uprising, the country was shaken to its foundations by students, some even younger than Min Zin, who took to the streets daily bringing dictator Ne Win's tottering regime to the point of collapse. But the broadly popular movement was brutally suppressed in September of that year when a military junta took power and thousands of people were killed.
Fast-forward to 2003 and Min Zin is still at it, only he is anything but naive.
Now a veteran journalist, the lanky, good-humored Min Zin is one of a handful of exiled Myanmar (Burma was officially renamed in 1989) journalists pointing the way toward an eventual future in which the press might one day thrive again in his home country.
He is a regular correspondent for Radio Free Asia and a staff editor for The Irrawaddy, a respected exile publication and website (www.Irrawaddy.org) covering Myanmar issues from Chiang Mai, Thailand. He has been a visiting fellow at the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley and his essays on topics ranging from political strategy to popular culture in his homeland are thoughtful, independent and influential.
His work as a writer, scholar and journalist is an inspiration to many. Christina Fink, an American expert on Myanmar affairs, credits Min Zin with being a key strategist of the student movement during his years in exile and says that his commentaries and articles are followed closely inside Myanmar through Radio Free Asia and through smuggled copies of his writing. "Min Zin focuses on the role of youth in society and seeks to inspire young people to develop themselves outside the regime's tightly controlled, top-down education," Fink wrote recently.
The path that Min Zin took to become a journalist has been arduous and threatening, sad and inspiring. After the suppression of 1988, Min Zin left school and went underground for nine years, dodging the efforts of the military regime to track him down and toss him into prison, along with thousands of others.
Throughout his years of hiding and exile - he narrowly escaped from Myanmar to seek refuge in neighboring Thailand in 1997 - he was never sure what would happen to him. "I saw friends, girls and boys 12 years old and even younger, killed by soldiers in front of my eyes," he said. His immediate family members were all arrested at one time or another, usually on suspicion that they were aiding Min Zin.
During his odyssey, he taught himself to speak and read English fluently and even contributed essays on political issues to underground samizdat journals that circulated among students and dissidents.
"I had a lot of time to read, in those days," he said with a laugh. While hiding in Myanmar, friends brought him books from the libraries of the US and British embassies in Yangon, and he began expanding the horizons of his political thinking. "At first, we had no idea what was democracy, he said. "In our schools we were only taught about Marxist thinking" during the regime of Ne Win, whose peculiar brand of "Burmese socialism" brought the country isolation and ruin.
It was life on the run, oddly enough, that gave Min Zin the time to deepen his thinking and begin writing seriously about change, even contributing scholarly non-political articles under a pen name to the few legal magazines published in Yangon.
His exposure to fresh ideas has not diminished his outrage at the junta that rules his country, but he jealously guards his independence and his credibility as a journalist. Neither Min Zin nor any of the staff of The Irrawaddy are members of any political organization.
"We are independent and free to think and criticize anyone," said the magazine's founder and editor, Aung Zaw, himself a political dissident in exile. "It is important for our future that we develop independent journalism for Burma."
When asked if he is an activist or a journalist, Min Zin bristles and insists that it is not an either/or proposition. "We need to define, first, the word 'activist'," he told Asia Times Online at The Irrawaddy office on a quiet street in Chiang Mai. "In the West you can take for granted that your rights are established. But here, the immediate goal is to remove the repression. So in terms of our values you can say we are activists. But in terms of affiliation, I am not an activist. I have never joined any political party."
Min Zin and his Irrawaddy colleagues constantly work the phones and networks of sources and friends inside Myanmar, searching for information on one of the most closed regimes in the world. When pro-government thugs, for example, attacked opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in a remote part of the country on May 30, The Irrawaddy was among the first to get the news.
Using sources inside Myanmar, they pieced together the events that most observers say were staged by the ruling State Peace and Development Council to tarnish Suu Kyi's image and justify her arrest and continuing detention.
Min Zin, however, does not confine himself to writing about the intricate twists and turns of Myanmar's long struggle for change. He is equally at home writing about popular singers in his homeland or discussing the country's literature. He has interviewed by phone one of Myanmar's few hip-hop stars for the magazine and recently wrote about a popular film actress who is also a devout Buddhist. "It is not all about politics," he explained. "The society is changing and I want to see how our culture can adapt to new realities."
His work is noticed in seemingly odd places. This year, Min Zin appeared on an MTV-produced documentary celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. The music channel sent him to South Africa for a taped dialogue with Mandela, an experience of a lifetime, he said, even though he admits that friends kidded him about appearing on MTV. Pop idol Beyonce Knowles hosted the special.
He was deeply impressed by Mandela and compared his effectiveness with that of Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate and Myanmar's roughly comparable leader. "Suu Kyi is a moral figure, she is a saint, a moral person in an immoral society," he said. "But she appeals too much to the conscience, on telling people to do the right thing. Unlike Mandela and Vaclav Havel [whom Min Zin also met and interviewed on a trip to the Czech Republic] - these guys knew how to maneuver. She is not pragmatic," he said. "Suu Kyi doesn't believe in maneuvering."
He is realistic about what it may take to change Myanmar's dictatorship, which has been in power in one form or another since 1962. He praises US efforts to boycott the regime and bring sanctions against Myanmar. "The United States is the hegemonic power in the world," he said. "They can make things happen if they will be serious about change." Min Zin wants to see the US twist the arms of China, Japan and Thailand - regional powers that have all done business with the dictatorship for decades - to force change on the generals in Yangon.
Eventually, he believes, change will come and his long sojourn will end. "Being in exile builds a rift between reality and your own life," he said. "Literally my dreams are still confined to my neighborhood in Rangoon." His father, a political activist and teacher from an earlier generation who also suffered and was jailed for his beliefs, died a few years ago, he said, but he cannot accept the reality because he cannot go home.
His dream is to return home and help establish The Irrawaddy as an independent newsmagazine in a free country. "We are not immigrants - we are refugees, forced to resettle somewhere foreign. I think about my life in Burma because I lost it all when I was 14. My mind is always back home."
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