Friday, April 9, 2004


New Era Journal, April 2004

Maxmilian Wechsler

Min Zin is a well-known and well-respected Burmese pro-democracy activist and also a freedom fighter who spends most of his exile life in Thailand.His opinions, ideas and views on problems and solutions in Burma are highly regarded, not only by Burmese, but also by the international community.Min Zin wrote a number of articles on various subjects, including how to achieve democracy in Burma and gave “Khit Pyiang” the following interview:

· Give us yours background.

I was born and raised in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. Yes, my family does have a political background, since my dad was a student union activist in 1950s and 60s. He and his colleagues, who were like my extended family members when I was young, were life-long dissidents against the ruling military and for that they suffered tremendous persecution from the military. Then my childhood years were filled with all these thrilling stories of dissident heroes. I vaguely realized then that there was always something larger than oneself in life. When I did (or even had the intention of doing) something good to my siblings or friends or society at large, I could be certain that my parents would appreciate me. When I finished reading something, whether children’s poems or longer tales, and talked to them about my readings, I knew my dad and his friends would love me.

As for politics, the greatest lesson I learned from my parent was about standing on principle. I would say that this theme of my upbringing was quite strong and powerful, so much so that it has become “second nature” for me, when it comes to politics.

· When and why did you join the anti-government movement?

When the 1988 pro-democracy uprising broke out, I was 14 years old and attending 10th standard (final year in high school). During the March 1988 students’ movement against the government, my eldest brother and sister were arrested on their university campus for their political activities. Another brother was expelled from school. That is when I started my political activism as a high school student. Later on I became one of the founding members of the nation-wide high school student union. Then, I was also on the Central Executive Committee of the All Burma Federation of Students’ Union (ABFSU), an umbrella organization comprised of high school and university student unions.

· When and why did you decide to leave Burma?

In July 1989, the military came to my house and tried to arrest me, but I was not at home, and they arrested my Dad instead of me. So, I was forced to go into hiding and began a nearly nine-year existence in Burma’s underground. During that period I managed to develop an activist-cum-writer life, although I was dismissed from school and constantly chased by military intelligence. Because of my political activism, almost every member of my family and most of my colleagues would endure arrest and detention. Following the December 1996 student demonstration, my security situation deteriorated more seriously than ever before and I finally decided it was too dangerous to continue living in Burma. I subsequently fled to the Thai-Burma border in August 1997.

· What are your present activities?

Since I have arrived Thailand, I have mainly devoted myself to writing. I am currently a deputy editor of the Irrawaddy magazine ( where, aside from editorial duties, I have done several political writings as well as stories that examine the relationship between culture and power in Burmese society. Of course, I have written on ethnic identity issues from this perspective. Now I also write two weekly programs for Radio Free Asia (RFA) Burmese Service. One is on youth and education, and the other about questions of ethic in politics. Occasionally, I travel abroad for conferences and seminars. I also spent one year as a visiting scholar at the Journalism School of the University of California Berkeley in 2001.

· What is the current status of the opposition movement inside and outside Burma?

The opposition movement is now in deep water, I would say. The junta has recovered from the outcry or public relation fiasco following the May 30 nightmare in Depayin and managed to launch a counterattack against the pro-democracy movement. To me, the regime’s moves ring of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The Burmese opposition movement is always being weakened and divided, not by naked military power (i.e. harsh crackdowns) but by political offensives that the junta throws into the battle field. In other words, the regime has perfected the art of combining naked force with political maneuvers to defeat the opposition movement.

The regime has now succeeded in persuading almost all the ethnic groups—ceasefire and non-ceasefire – to climb aboard the road map bandwagon. With the legitimacy these groups will add to the National Convention, the junta can undermine Aung San Suu Kyi’s election-winning National League for Democracy (NLD) party, since the opposition also depends on its alliance with ethnic groups.Moreover, in this most recent push for legitimacy the regime has been trying to market its scheme to regional powers (such as Thailand, China …), particularly to so-called “Bangkok Process”. If successful, the maneuvers could sideline the opposition movement’s international allies, such as the U.S. and U.N.

· Are you satisfied with the activities of the Burmese opposition?

I said that I learned from my father’s generation, who were mostly left-leaning activists, that it is important to stand up for one’s principles in politics. However, from my own experiences during these many years in the opposition movement, I realized that principle alone doesn’t guarantee political victory. Political activists need to understand what distinguishes those who succeed by standing on principle from those who fail. Then you have to think about the importance of strategy. Without having a sound and pragmatic strategy, sticking to principle alone will make you quixotic and leave you stranded in irrelevance.

To my eyes, the Burmese opposition does not have a winning strategy. Or their strategic approach is linear.

· You have been closely associated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Give us some insight on your relationship.

I met her several times in 1988 and ‘89. Alongside her, I gave public speeches on some occasions. She was the first person I met in our hierarchically structured society who treats younger people with respect. She listened to, argued against, and laughed with a fifteen-year-old high school activist, who was the same age of her son. She did all these things with wise observations and of course authenticity. As a citizen of Burma, I always feel that the country is very lucky to have such leader.

· Certain people describe ASSK as “stubborn, not flexible and uncompromising.” What do you think?

It often sounds sexist to my ears. When a man is tough, people praise him as a hero. But about a woman, some tend to say she is “stubborn, not flexible and uncompromising”. I don’t think it would be fair to take her out of the context, in which she faces tremendous pressures and repressions, altering from moment to moment. Under the given situation, A person like her who values integrity and wants to uphold it as ultimately important in politics can have a tendency to get stuck in moral paradigm. While she doesn’t need to devote herself to manipulative “warrior politics” (if I could borrow Robert Kaplan’s concept), she can be more proactive in her strategy.

· Do you support armed or political struggle to achieve the regime-change in Burma?

The rhetoric of “regime change” carries a scary weight these days, whether or not it implies military intervention. But I doubt this goal is realistic. The superpower has no compelling strategic interest when it comes to Burma. And China cannot allow a radical power shift to take place on its southern flank.This doesn’t mean that the oppressed people should give up their struggle and pin their hopes on the military’s good will. More importantly, we should always keep in mind that those who play hardball dominate the political game in Burma.

· Your view on the peace talks between the Karen National Union Defense Minister, Gen. Bo Mya, and the Burmese government?

I think the truce deal is a good start. But the KNU should understand that the talk or dialogue is in itself an “art of war” or political gamesmanship, and this requires A sophisticated approach. You cannot enter it with the attitude of, “Okay, if it works out, we’ll go ahead. If not, we resume fighting.)” As I said earlier, you cannot succeed in political war with a linear strategy.I want to point out another important thing with ethnic politics. Since learning about the recent Kachin purge and seeing obvious power plays among KNU leaders regarding the truce, I am getting more worried about the lack of democratization and decentralized processes in ethnic armed groups. When those who hold arms are not accountable to their people or become dictatorial, it can be devastating, wherever it happens.

· If Bo Mya finally agrees to the cease-fire, how will it affect the opposition movement, since many of which depend on the KNU?

Alliance politics has its limits since self-interest dominates politics, in the final analysis. Political graveyards are filled with the people as well as movements who do not learn this lesson.

· There has not been any reaction from the international community on the cease-fire talks between the KNU and the SPDC. Do you think it is supporting the idea of peaceful solution to the conflict?

I think Rangoon really wants the international community to appreciate its cease-fire deals with several ethnic groups including the latest one with the KNU. This is what the regime hopes to put at the center of attention in Burmese politics or “national reconciliation”. In principle, the world would agree with a peaceful solution. But I think the West does not want to let the regime to win another cheap victory at democracy’s expense.

· You met with Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. On what occasions? And what is their suggestion to solve the conflict in Burma?

I met Havel in 2001 and Mandela in 2003. I had wonderful opportunities to talk to them individually. Both struck me as great strategists who define politics and policy not just by their excellence but by their outcomes.

· Do you support the economic sanction against Burma imposed by the international community?

There is a myth that surrounds the sanctions debate on Burma. People talk about the country as if a wall of comprehensive sanctions has been imposed on it. In fact, economic sanctions are, so far, not multi-lateral. The U.S. alone has imposed sanctions on Burma. Regional countries and the E.U remain a big loophole, allowing Rangoon to go around U.S. sanctions and re-channel its exports to these countries. We also should remember that sanctions alone can’t resolve the problem. It is just one option or form of international intervention to make change.

We can’t hide the fact that sanctions do hurt people as in every other case around the world, in addition to hurting the regime. Here the question is whether the ends justify the means. That again depends on what are the ends. Then it will be a long debate.Now some countries have started talking about targeted economic sanctions against military-owned or joint-venture companies in Burma. Some would call them “smart sanctions.” All in all, I think the sanctions tactic is a ”necessary evil” regarding Burmese politics.

· Some Burmese dissidents criticize the Thai government the way the refugees, illegal workers and the exiles are treated in Thailand. Any comment?

Not only Burmese dissidents but also watch-groups have raised concerns about the way Thailand treats downtrodden people from neighboring countries. I share their concerns.· Is there any chance that the Burmese people will rise-up against the government on their-own?Frustration among ordinary public is mounting. No doubt, economic problems can trigger people’s anger. But what kind of street movement will ensue is a matter of concern.The most likely scenario is spontaneous and possibly sporadic uprisings out of sheer frustration and desperation. This can turn into an outraged crowd unless the political leadership takes quick initiative. The masses can easily be swayed by the junta’s incitement or even by the provocative nature of the crowd mentality, and they can become chaotic, violent and bloody. Then, the regime will subdue any assemblage harshly, with its usual justification of a Leviathan call.

The scenario many activists are inclined to fancy, on the other hand, is a well-organized mass demonstration calling for peaceful change in the country or overthrowing the regime. However, unless NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular come up with leadership for such street protests, none of the inside or outside-based political groups has the capacity to initiate it.Even if the NLD took the initiative, the chances for victory are not yet secure. Activists must account for the vital role of the regime’s population control mechanisms such as armies, spies, etc. All in all, the positive prospects for a peaceful mass mobilization are dim.Under the current situation, I’m worried that Burma is heading toward a repetition of the 1967 rice lootings and communal riots, instead of the 8888 movement, which activists are nostalgic for.I wish my insight was wrong and an unexpectedly handsome solution popped up, as is characteristic of Burmese politics.

· What do the “silent majority” of the Burmese people think about the government, the NLD, and the exiles?

I think the late President Doctor Maung Maung said he wants to hear the voice of “silent majority” including housewives in the kitchens (as the only educated senior leader of the regime, he borrowed it from Richard Nixon) during the peak of the 1988 mass demonstration. The next day, housewives, elementary school kids and gays took to the streets and showed that they, too, did not like the government and wanted democracy. I believe that those voices of our “moral majority” (let me use Jerry Falwell’s term) remain more or less the same (perhaps, even stronger) with regard to military rule and pro-democracy supporters.

· With such diversity of ethnic groups, some of them armed, demanding for independence or autonomy, and most of them generally distrust the Burmans, do you think Burma can have a civilian government?

I am not sure about a radical change. But we can start political liberalization that will gradually develop political infrastructures, institutional capacity and social capital. The resulting environment will be conducive to a smooth transition. But at the current speed of no-reform-at-all, or an unrealistic speed of change-everything-overnight, the outcome will be a crash landing.

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