Friday, October 12, 2012

He was a hero -- and my friend

Posted By Min Zin  

My former colleagues in Burma are preparing a special commemorative ceremony to be held next week to honor a fallen hero, Thet Win Aung. They've asked me to write an essay about him, as they plan to publish a book about him on the sixth anniversary of his death. For several days I've been unable to complete the task.
It reminds me that I was also incapable of reporting on Thet Win Aung's death in October 2006, while I was working for a Burmese broadcast media outlet in the U.S. I remember my energy was completely drained and my heart sank as I listened to Thet Win Aung's father explain to me the details of his son's death in a Mandalay prison. As an activist-turned-journalist, I always hoped I would not have to report on the jailing, torture, and deaths of my former colleagues still inside military-ruled Burma. But I never got my wish. Those tragedies were the order of the day in Burma. They were never simply news stories to me, and yet a single death on October 16, 2006, in a single junta-run prison, broke my heart and brought me closer to these stories than ever before.
Thet Win Aung was my close colleague during Burma's democratic struggle in 1988, as well as my childhood friend. We attended the same class and lived in the same township, and spent our teenage years playing guitar and soccer together. We stayed in the same hideouts when we were engaged in pro-democracy politics and were on the run together to evade arrest by Military Intelligence. Our childhood friendship was deepened by our shared commitment to Burma's cause for democracy and human rights. This commitment sustained our dedication and hope in the darkest period of our lives. But he was cruelly forced to leave us. The parting was undue, and final.
When the initial student demonstrations of the 1988 popular uprising broke out on university campuses, Thet Win Aung and I secretly organized a student union in our high school, and contacted other high school and university student activists. Since 1962, when the military regime banned the university student unions and dynamited the student union building at Rangoon University, union membership -- let alone organizing a union -- became illegal. Thet Win Aung played an instrumental role in the founding of our national high school student union in 1988.
Leading up to the 8-8-88 ("four eights") mass uprising that occurred throughout the country on Aug. 8, 1988 -- an uprising calling for democracy -- he and I wrote and produced student union statements in the attic of his house. This political literature was etched into inked wax paper and "copied" page by page, using a fluorescent tube, since we didn't have access to printers or Xerox machines. The original was set face up in a wooden tray with a blank piece of paper over it. Then the tube was rolled across the paper and the copy removed. Each copy had to be produced separately. The pamphlets had to be packed into many parcels so that each package could be easily and safely distributed to the different student activist teams. Thet Win Aung worked out all these details with tremendous patience and ingenuity.
After I went into hiding in July 1989 to evade arrest by the junta, Thet Win Aung was taken into a Military Intelligence camp for interrogation, since the military knew he was my close colleague. He was in an interrogation center for several weeks. Despite being severely tortured, Thet Win Aung refused to reveal any information about other activists. In fact, he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured several times throughout the first half of the 1990s, but never betrayed his colleagues or the cause.
Once when visiting my hideout, he happened to talk to me about one of the torture incidents during his imprisonment. The prison authority stripped him, tied him to a pole, and beat him severely with a wooden stick. After looking at the scars on his shoulders and torso, I asked him, "How could you manage to stay strong in face of such attempts to breaking your spirit?" He looked at me, smiled, and said: "Honestly speaking, moods never stay constant. At times my feelings are down, and other times they are up. I think that's natural." He paused and continued, "The most important thing that enables me to keep going despite the up and down of my emotions is that I never give up my self-respect and my commitment to my colleagues." Those words were very simple, but they've always stayed with me, deep in my heart.
When the military cracked down on the demonstrators and organizers of the 1996 student movement, many student activists, including Thet Win Aung, were at great risk. He struggled hard to find a hideout where he could stay, even for a few days at a time. But he had made up his mind to stay inside Burma as long as he could. Thet Win Aung and I moved to an area controlled by an ethnic minority rebel group that had signed a cease-fire agreement with the junta. But the military was able to track us down. We were constantly on the move. Eventually, we decided to make our way to the Thai-Burmese border in late 1997. In August 1997, Thet Win Aung and I, along with three other student activists, fled to Thailand by walking through the jungle for five days. By the time we arrived in Thailand, Thet Win Aung had malaria and had to be hospitalized in Bangkok.
As an exile, Thet Win Aung felt cut off from the people he loved and served. Soon after we arrived in Thailand, he discussed with me his idea of returning to Burma to pursue non-violent political activities. Out of the five of us who snuck into Thailand together, one had already gone back to Burma. He was arrested by the military and sentenced to death in early 1998. Rather than being frightened by this news, Thet Win Aung felt an even greater obligation to return to Burma and continue his underground activities. He ignored our pleas to remain in exile, and we eventually prepared for his return.
I can't forget the final days when we discussed day and night the details of his mission once he got back to Burma. I kept reminding him to put his safety first, and provided him with emergency exit plans.
One early morning in August 1998, we stood together at the entrance of our hide-out in Mae Sot, a Thai border town, waiting for the contact person who would take Thet Win Aung back to Burma. Though the motorbike had arrived, we were still going over what we had discussed. We hugged each other tightly, and I whispered to him, "Keep three gems (Buddha, dhamma, and Sangha) in your heart. We'll see each other again." Then he got on the bike and left. I watched his back until the bike disappeared. I tried not to think that it might be our last meeting.
It turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. After he had coordinated several student movements supporting Aung San Suu Kyi's political actions in 1998, Military Intelligence launched a manhunt for him, and finally captured him in October 1998. He was severely tortured during interrogation. The regime alleged publicly that he was receiving support from foreign sources (mainly from me), and sentenced him to 52 years in prison, later increased to 59 years. He was sent to Kalay Prison in Northwestern Burma, far away from his family and far from medical care.
Thet Win Aung, however, did not bow down. He staged hunger strikes to protest the inhumane conditions in the prison. The authorities beat him and sent him to another prison in the far north where malaria is rampant. His malaria infection worsened and paralyzed him from the waist down. Then he was sent back to Mandalay Prison in central Burma, where he was wheelchair-bound.
The regime turned a deaf ear to calls from abroad for his immediate release, notably because of his worsening health. The regime even re-arrested his brother Pyone Cho on September 30, 2006: Pyone Cho had already served a 14-year prison term and was released in 2003. His condition and his brother's arrest pushed him too far, and Thet Win Aung collapsed suddenly early in the morning of October 16, 2006. He received no medical treatment before his star dimmed and fell forever.
My life, my work, all of it, is based on words: Using them to inform, to enlighten, and to heal. And yet I could find no words to console Thet Win Aung's father when I spoke to him that October evening in 2006. At the depth of his sorrow, I felt I was with him, sharing what Barrington Moore, Jr. has called "the unity of misery."
When I reported on the death of Thet Win Aung, I could not pretend to distance myself as a reporter, as if I had nothing to do with him.
Once again, there's no point in making a show of detachment and neutrality. As a friend and colleague, let me pay tribute to Thet Win Aung here, and to all of his countless sacrifices.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t say during her visit to Washington

Posted By Min Zin  

The Lady continues her U.S. tour. Aung San Suu Kyi has already visited Washington, DC, and New York City, and now she's on her way to the West Coast. Last week I had the privilege of flying to the U.S. capital to see her during her stop there. It was a great honor to greet her again in person. It was 23 years since we had last seen each other.
On 26 August 1988, I marched together with my fellow high school students to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to listen to the historic speech Aung San Suu Kyi gave in front of an audience that may have numbered up to a million people. My eldest brother, a student activist who had been arrested for his political work on campus and had been released just a few weeks earlier, was helping to keep the crowd in order around the rostrum. I ended up out there somewhere in the middle, as the never-ending applause and the chanting of political slogans washed over me. At times I even heard her voice, but most of the time it was hard to make her out over the cheers: "Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!"
My father was a former student activist who had opposed military dictatorship since the late 1950s. That evening I heard him say: "We've found our true leader." Tears welled up in his eyes. It amazed me.
When I met her in person for the first time in the wake of the 1988 military coup, I immediately realized that my father was right. She struck me as a towering figure, an inspirational leader.
My respect for the Lady since then has never diminished. But I will never allow my love and admiration for her to hold me back from speaking my mind. I believe strongly that I always have the right to scrutinize the arguments of the people with whom I share a common moral universe. I will never allow my respect for this hero to serve as an excuse for surrendering my critical faculties.
My long-awaited encounter with the Lady last week was no exception. During a dinner event in honor of Suu Kyi in Washington, I saw how my American friends were riveted by her speech. They were amazed to see her give her talk in impeccable English, without teleprompter or notes.
Yet I found the substance of her speech disappointing. She spent most of the time telling her audience about the work being done by her political party, the National League for Democracy, in the communities where it's active. But she didn't have a single word to spare for the fate of some 70,000 ethnic Kachin people fleeing the war between Burmese army and Kachin rebels. The war has been going on since last year, when the government broke a 17-year ceasefire and launched an attack on the rebels. The Kachin refugees are living in overcrowded camps, enduring heavy monsoon rains without food, drinking water, and medicine. Both the Burmese and Chinese governments are exacerbating the situation by blocking the deliver of aid to the refugees. To make matters worse, Beijing has also forced thousands of refugees who tried to escape the fighting by crossing the border into its territory back into the war zone. (The image above shows an elderly Kachin man in a relief camp in Laiza, on the Burmese side of the border.)
Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about all this is alarming. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so. Last week a group of 23 Kachin ethnic organizations issued an open letter to the Lady challenging her position and inviting her to visit the refugees in Kachin state. "You will be able to hear directly from the victims about the human rights abuses that have been committed against them," the authors of the letter wrote. "You will see for yourself the suffering caused by the Burmese government's refusal to allow humanitarian aid into these areas."
The Kachin activists point out that no one is in a better position than Daw Suu to publicize their dire situation. "You are now able to travel all over the world and speak openly to large audiences," they write. "We have trust in you that you will recognize the urgency and importance of this request and not refuse the invitation."
Acknowledging the criticism, the Lady rationalized her silence in one of her public events in New York on Sunday. She argues that taking sides in the war will make it worse, and warns the members of the Burmese exile community to focus on reconciliation rather than dwelling on what divides us. Instead of ascribing blame, she called on the people to examine the root causes of the conflict and to address them.
This all sounds very reasonable, of course. But, in reality, it's a position that falls far short of the high standards we've come to expect from Aung San Suu Kyi. To see someone of her stature treating the oppressor and the oppressed as morally equivalent is depressing. Let's be clear about it: In this situation, the oppressed are the Kachins.
Let's start with a well-known fact: Burma is a multi-ethnic country. Under the pre-colonial Burman kingdoms as well as during British colonial rule, all of the main ethnic groups enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. After independence in 1948, the Burman armed forces of the new Burmese state entered the ethnic regions, militarized the government, and plundered the country's natural resources, much of which is located in the minority regions. The central government has tried to forcibly assimilate the local populations while committing heinous human rights violations (including large-scale murder, rape, and forced relocations, all well-documented). So you just can't claim that there are "two sides" to these conflicts that are equally worthy of consideration. The ethnic groups' struggle for political autonomy and self-determination is a justified reaction to domination and repression by the Burman majority. Burmans (a group that includes Aung San Suu Kyi and the present author) should be able to understand this.
So it's puzzling that Aung San Suu Kyi would choose to stress the virtues of neutrality. I should be clear about something else: respecting the cause of the ethnic minorities doesn't mean that you have to be silent about human rights violations committed by the ethnic armed forces. You don't have to agree with all of the minority groups' demands. Finding a way out of post-conflict situations is always messy, and always dictated by practical matters of history and economics as much as by abstract principle. Reconciliation always involves negotiations and political trade-offs. All the ethnic groups involved in Burma's civil war agree with the need to find pragmatic solutions. It's important to note, by the way, that none of the main minority groups is now calling for secession.
What we don't need here, of course, is a moral recklessness that ultimately provokes further conflict. What we do need is that quality of moral sensitivity and courage that can "lend a voice to suffering" because it "is a condition of all truth," as Theodor Adorno once wrote. If Aung San Suu Ky fails to find her voice on this issue, she runs the risk of creating even greater resentment among the underdogs.
Yes, it's true. Burma's transition is very fragile, and we have to be careful how we move forward. The democratic opposition has already made many compromises, and it will have to make many more. That is entirely logical, and to some extent it is justified by the current political situation (one in which the regime is far stronger and more ruthless). But what the pro-democracy movement cannot do in this situation is to surrender its core values. It cannot give up the principles for which it has fought for so long and which continue to define it. Otherwise it runs the risk of giving up its own reason for being.
Suu Kyi has said she will strongly condemn human rights violations and any efforts to derail the reconciliation process in Burma. But she has yet to take a clear stand on the abuses that are still being committed in the Kachin conflict as I write this. Let's hope she can find it in her heart to change.

Aung San Suu Kyi is headed for the U.S.

Posted By Min Zin  

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel laureate, is coming to Washington, D.C. On September 19 she is set to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. This is the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress, and it will be presented to Suu Kyi "for her leadership and steadfast commitment to human rights and for promoting freedom, peace and democracy in her home country of Burma," said House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.
During her short visit, Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to New York, Kentucky, and the West Coast. Along the way she'll receive several other honors and awards, including the Global Citizen Award from the Atlantic Council in New York. She will also be speaking at universities and think-tanks as well as addressing members of the Burmese diaspora community. On September 20, she is slated to speak at the National Endowment for Democracy for a ceremony that will present awards to five other fellow Burmese political and social activists.
According to Burmese lobbyists in Washington, First Lady Michelle Obama has invited Suu Kyi to stay overnight at the White House. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as well as Microsoft Chief Bill Gates, will attend a White House dinner hosted by President Obama and the First Lady in Aung San Suu Kyi's honor. Her visit is sure to draw lots of media attention both in the U.S. and Burma.
Meanwhile, Burma's reformist President Thein Sein is scheduled to arrive in the United States for a three-day visit starting on September 24. He will speak at the UN General Assembly in New York. The trip was made possible by the visa restriction waiver issued last month by President Obama. Otherwise the Burmese leader's visit would have been confined to a narrow area surrounding the UN headquarters, since the 2008 law barred entry into the U.S. for Burmese officials implicated in human rights abuses.
Burma's leading human rights activist and its president, an ex-member of the ruling junta, are visiting the United States at the same time. It's an unprecedented situation. So what should we expect from the visits?
A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommends that President Obama meet with both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. An advocacy group close to U.S. officials has confirmed to me that Obama will very likely meet with Thein Sein in New York. But the Obama administration has informed Burmese authorities that the president expects the release of the remaining political prisoners -- about 300 to 500 of them -- before he receives Thein Sein.
Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are both likely to raise the policy issue of removing the trade sanctions against Burma. Even though Congress renewed the law on sanctions against Burma last month, the White House has the authority to waive that legislation. Thein Sein will likely appeal to President Obama to exercise this authority -- and Suu Kyi will probably endorse Thein Sein's agenda. Burmese leaders may also press President Obama to provide bilateral assistance to Burma.
While many exile activists would like to focus on ending the civil war in the Kachin region, or insist on regarding the release of the remaining political prisoners as a precondition for further U.S. concessions, Suu Kyi may focus on somewhat more abstract issues, such as responsible foreign investments and the rule of law in Burma. Her speeches will call for what she has referred to elsewhere as "democracy-friendly development growth."
Yet Suu Kyi could make a huge difference for Burma by persuading some top U.S. universities to accept Burmese students, who could receive urgently needed training in economics and international law. If she can secure funding for travel and capacity training for Burmese civil society and media groups from U.S. donor agencies, civic foundations, think tanks, or news organizations, this would also make her trip of great service to her country. She can also persuade Burmese professionals and businesspeople living overseas to return to Burma and help in the country's transition. These are the sorts of measures that can bring tangible benefits to the country as a whole.
All in all, the visits of both leaders could yield win-win outcomes for all players involved in Burma's transition (including the U.S. itself). Thein Sein can garner further international applause for his reforms, and perhaps secure promises of a gradual removal of the sanctions on Burma. Suu Kyi will undoubtedly impress U.S. politicians with her charisma and moral authority, and this will demonstrate to her detractors back home (including those in the ruling party and the military) that her larger-than-life image in the West is crucial to Burma's transition by helping civil society access much-needed resources from the West. Finally, both trips will also serve the interests of the U.S., which is trying to balance against surging Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific region. Burma is a critical link for China, providing access to the Indian Ocean as well as a supply of natural resources, so boosting American influence there is good for Washington.
It would be easy to dismiss Aung San Suu Kyi's contribution to the reform process as something purely symbolic. But this is wrong. Hers has been a concrete political achievement, reinforced by her conspicuous toughness and moral rigor.
The reforms initiated by the military-backed government would not have been able to achieve any success without Suu Kyi's endorsement. Aung San Suu Kyi has, in fact, proved herself to be Burma's most important asset. We can fairly expect that with this historic trip to the U.S., the Lady will continue to put her prestige to good use and manage to keep Burma high on the list of the foreign policy priorities of the United States. Her story shows that having moral authority and exercising real political power are not always mutually exclusive.