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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America


A specialist on the political situation in Burma for over 30 years as a journalist, civil servant, activist, scholar and author of several books on Burmese and Asian affairs, including Constructive Engagement in the Burmese Context, published by CPDSK, Thailand in 1995. Dr. Win served as Foreign Affairs Secretary to the Prime Minister of the then Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma from 1974-1979. As a peace activist in exile, he has pursued with zeal for the restoration of democracy, human rights and nationalities autonomy in Burma since the 1988. He has worked as an editor, professor, researcher and consultant ­ in France, South Korea, Singapore, Belgium, Canada, and Thailand.

His reputation for giving a balanced view and for being an outspoken critic was well established even during his career as Foreign Affairs Secretary. Dr. Win has worked hard at trying to expose the reality of the political situation in Burma and has insisted upon all governments and International Policy experts to take a much tougher stand against the Burmese regime. At the same time he has appealed to all Burmese democratic advocates, and ethnic nationalities including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to work together in a co-ordinated effort to make changes. It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Dr Win, in the face of academicians, politicians, and others who have criticized his viewpoints; he has the intellectual grit and moral integrity to stick by his guns on restoring peace and democracy for Burma.

KW:  Your experience under BSPP government in Burma?

Dr. Win:  I was a 7th July student residing at Taungoo Hall in 1962. But with the Lord’s help I escaped the massacre. Since then I have seen the true nature of the military dictatorship. I graduated with Political Science honours in 1966 and work as a hall tutor (Pegu Hall where Kyaw Win was the S & R secretary). After completing my Master’s degree I was called by Public Works Corporation as a Staff Officer. (Not so much because of my literacy but because of my athletic prowess as I represented Burma in several bilateral meets and SEAP games) I was (still is) a technical academic and would not join any political party including the BSPP. But the authorities respected my insightful approach and forth righteousness and so when the Minister of Construction Brigadier Sein Win became the Prime Minister of the then Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, I was called to be his Foreign Affairs Secretary in 1974 (At that time Khin Nyunt was just a captain and personal assistant to Colonel Tint Swe who was a deputy minister for the Prime Minister Office, I remember how this little captain Khin Nyunt come and stand at my table). From the beginning I was not happy of how things are running in the country but since they are in power, I have no option but to work through them and try to salvage what little things I can do.

KW: Can you tell us how and why you left Burma?

Dr. Win: By late 1979 I had already lost my job and was back from Insein detention centre when I founded a small Burmese NGO under the religious umbrella in 1985 and hoped to spend the rest of my life doing social work, when suddenly in 1987 the demonetization of the big bank notes made me and my association penniless. The funds, which we got from foreign donors, were all swept away at one stroke. I decided to go on a lecture tour to the 12 European Economic Community countries and in early 1988 landed in Paris under the aegis of CCFD. (Committee Catholique Contre la faim et pour le Developpement). From there I toured France and Europe when, on 8-8-88 I rushed back home from Geneva. I stopped in Bangkok and found myself on the side of pro democracy and autonomy forces. I was then working for the relief of students in an ad hoc committee under the umbrella of CCT (Christ church of Thailand) funded by the Geneva based World Council of Churches. Since then I have never seen my native land.

KW: In observing Burma, what are the different perspectives from the international community? Can you tell us the difference between the ICG’s (International Crisis Group) approach and others?

Dr. Win: The Western world led by the US and Europe stood on the principles of democracy and human rights. They believe in the universality and indivisibility of the Human Rights aspects. The Asian countries spearheaded by the ASEAN, followed by China, Japan and later by India believe in the Constructive Engagement approach and interpreted the Western stand on Burma as the most sinister plot of imperialism to interfere in an Asian country under the façade of human rights violations.

As far as the ICG papers on Burma are concerned I have no or very little argument with them in terms of research authenticity. But what I disagree is their attitude towards the struggling lot of Burmese people. They stay neutral in the struggle between democracy and human rights on one side and tyranny and dictatorship on the other side. They construe it as the struggle between the two protagonists. The reality of the situation in Burma is so awful that to pretend otherwise and to maintain that the truth must automatically lie equidistant between two poles in the name of objectivity is to do violence to the truth. They simply could not comprehend the true Burmese situation. The ICG tends to write a blank check for oppression.

Moreover it reduces complex issues to simple relativist absurdities that hold all antagonists in a conflict to be morally equivalent between the pro democracy groups and the tyrants. Thus in a way is tantamount to lending credibility to the Burmese military dictatorship.

This is not surprising as Gerard Evans (the former Australia foreign Minister whose government is supporting the Burmese Junta) is their chairperson and its director Robert Templar (in his letter to the Secretary of EIAS) have openly declared that they will not hire any Burmese academic as they are unable to think clearly. This is tantamount to racial superiority and I recollect Ruyard Kipling works “The White Man’s Burden” that label the Asian and the African as half man and half beast. It also paints the picture that they alone know the Burmese crisis in depth even though not one of them could ever read or write Burmese. Not that I abhor their attitude of “I am the monarch of all I survey” but mainly because of their moral bankruptcy.

KW: What role should the international community play in pressuring the regime in Burma?

Dr. Win: The international community should take a leading role in Burma for the restoration of democracy and human rights. I believe in the Tripartite talk, not the one usually interpreted by the Burmese as the Junta, NLD and the ethnic groups but rather (1) the Junta, (2) the ethnic and the pro democracy groups under the umbrella of NLD and (3) the international community led by the United States. In this age of globalization more and more countries are changing from dictatorship to democracy and the market forces are making their presence felt, the international community has became more important than ever to install a check and balance system.

I also strongly think that US should use force to put an end to half a century of Burmese dictatorship which is the source of trouble in the region and the world at large e.g. narcotics exports. This will also put an end to the wild accusation that US fought two wars in Iraq because of oil. By saving the 50 million plus Burmese people from the long clutches of the hated Tatamadaw it will earn more kudos.

KW: How do you see the conflict in Burma? (Is it an ethnic crisis or a democracy problem?)

Dr. Win: Personally, I think real genuine democracy and the ethnic problem are just two sides of a coin. If there is genuine democracy, the ethnic problem can be solved on the table rather than shooting at each other. In this aspect we must be very careful not to practice the tyranny of the majority. To be very frank I think Myanmar Chauvinism must be buried once and for all.

Looking back at the modern history of Burma even before the Panglong Conference convened in 1947, when our beloved leader Bogyoke Aung San signed the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, one of the clauses is to get the consensus of the ethnic nationalities and this was vehemently opposed by the pro Myanmar chauvinist groups like Galon U Saw of the Myochit Party, Thakin Ba Sein of Dohama Asiayone, Dr.Ba Maw of Maharbamar, Thakin Tun Oke groups etc. Bogyoke Aung San’s early death ushered the triumph of the Myanmar chauvinism whose torch was later carried by Thankin Nu (authentic proof can be seen in making Buddhism the state religion) and of course by Ne Win, Sein Lwin and their cohorts up to the present day Burmese Generals. These Myanmar groups wanted to treat the nationalities somewhat like Pyu, Kanyan and Thet whom they had obliterated even before the first Burmese kingdom of 1044 A.D. They are the ones that practice the policy of “a great nation.”

But not every Myanmar is bad. There are several sincere and genuine Myanmar who would like to see the Union of Burma as Bogyoke Aung San had visualized i.e. unity in diversity under the federal constitution. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one of them. Like father like daughter she really believes in democracy and the rights of the nationalities and the genuine Panglong spirit is already prevalent. Of course there will be some even among the NLD who opted for Burmese chauvinism but since they belong to the democratic group at least one can talk with them. Hence for the time being, the Non Myanmar i.e. the nationalities should work with these groups and test it of whether the NLD is serious in solving the nationalities question. Care must also be taken among the Non Myanmar not to be racist. 

(I was rather perplexed when you used the word ethnic crisis). There is no such word as ethnic when Pyidaungsu was formed, rather we were referred as Nationalities (Taing Yin Thar in Burmese) Do we become ethnic because we do not belong to the Myanmar race? Is there an ethnic cleansing because we are dirty? Another factor, which I would humbly like to point out to you, is there is no such thing as ethnic crisis like in Kosovo or Bosnia where one ethnic group fights the other. All the nationalities in Burma are fighting a common enemy i.e. Myanmar chauvinism represented by the Mudane Tatmadaw.

Even then please note that we are not fighting against the Myanmar people itself, we are just fighting the Myanmar chauvinism. If the nationalities were given autonomy under the federal constitution there would be no civil war as the Burma Communist Party (the only party that fought under the banner of ideology) is six feet under the ground. There are many Myanmar who see eye to eye with us and even the Myanmar dominated groups like ABSDF, DPNS etc and fighting shoulder to shoulder with us.

KW: What forces are important for peace and reconciliation in Burma?

Dr. Win: The moderate and liberal forces from all sides of the conflicts both Myanmar and Non Myanmar should covet in trying to find peace and reconciliation.  They must be able to override the extremist and the ultra nationalist among their colleagues and must be rational enough to find the solution. Democracy and federalism that will fit the need of the people of Burma together with forgiveness (not forgetfulness) understanding and respect of each other will finally bring peace and reconciliation.

KW: Which constitution is needed to solve the political and economic turmoil in Burma?

Dr. Win: A federal constitution that respects the nationalities, drawn up not only by the consensus of the entire people but also of the intelligentsia who can foresee the future especially in this age of globalization must be drawn up with a check and balance system in political, social, economics and cultural fields.

KW: How can the Burmese community in exile help to bring change in Burma?

Dr. Win: The Burmese in Diaspora have already highlighted their struggle to the international community and what they need is more cohesiveness and corporation among themselves. But the trouble with the Burmese people in Diaspora including the nationalities is “Jealousy”.

Everybody aspired to be liked Bogyoke Aung San but ended up acting like Shu Maung. The international community is now looking at the Burmese in exile and was wondering what sort of Burma will be when democracy is achieved. How much they can work together will be judged by their actions now. Efficient leaders should be sorted out to lead the exiles and not only work between their own clan and groups. The joke that “if we put two Burmese in a cell they will form three political parties” should be proven otherwise by our actions.

KW: Is there any chance that Daw Su Kyi, the military regime and ethnic groups can work together?

Dr. Win: As I have said earlier that Daw Suu and the ethnic groups could work together but not the “Mudane Tatmadaw” as they are evil by nature. Their philosophy that “they alone are patriotic while the others did not have a pale of patriotism and are parasites” is imbued in them and there is no room for compromise. This mammoth army must be disbanded and replaced with Pyidaungsu Army who will really serve the country and people.

KW: What do you expect following the release of AS Suu Kyi? (Editor’s Notes: the interview was taken before she suffered head injury and was re-arrested by the regime.)

Dr. Win: I really expect that the release of Daw Suu to usher a new period of negotiation instead of an end in itself. Daw Suu must be able to close the aging intellectuals and the young hot heads. She must be more forceful in dealing with the Junta.

KW: What problems will Burma face in the transition period?

Dr. Win: There will be several problems besides reconstruction, rehabilitation. There will be problems in education and health as most of the educated are out of the country. Problems will be faced in politics, social and economic fields. Complete trust among the protagonists must be restored. The hardest part will be the moral and intellectual reconstruction of a nation that was systematically destroyed by these generals. Extremes will be committed from all sides and conflict resolution will have to play a major part.

KW: What kind of Burma do you want to see in the future?

Dr. Win: I want to see a free and united Burma taking its rightful place in the community of civilized nations and not a pariah state like now.  I want my beloved readers to think globally but to act locally.

KAO WAO NEWS No. 45 (June 10, 2003)


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