‘I Don’t Think it is Possible to Scrap the Entire System and Build a New One’

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 3 April 2015

A former second vice-chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, Aung Din was incarcerated from 1989 to 1993 for participating in the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. After traveling to the United States, he worked as executive director of the US Campaign for Burma between 2003 and 2012, and was also involved with the Free Burma Coalition for two years. In this interview with Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition, Aung Din discusses recent reforms in the country, the evolution of the United States’ foreign policy towards Burma, and the prospects of free and fair elections in the next decade.

How much has the foreign policy of the international community changed toward Burma since the new government took power?

Many years ago, the United States determined its policy on Burma would depend on the human rights situation in the country. But these days, the US takes three factors into consideration. Human rights is still an important factor, alongside economics and geopolitics. The US would like to have a government that is friendly towards it in Burma, while it is trying to counterbalance the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Considering these factors, they believe that their engagement policy is right. There may be unexpected difficulties and setbacks in pursuing this policy, but they will not reverse from it, they will only push ahead. At the same time, they are expecting a free and fair election in 2015. If the election were free and fair, the legislative landscape will be stronger in 2016. There will be larger democratic forces and ethnic forces in the parliament. Then the parliament will be stronger than it is in its current term—at least, I expect so. To make it happen, US administration is taking steps to support the 2015 election.

From Washington’s point of view, what kind of country is Burma?

I recently talked with a senior figure in the US administration. He said they regard our country as a normal one. We have a government, opposition, government supporters and supporters of the opposition. There are conflicts, and sometimes violence and crackdowns, but that these are however quite normal for many countries of the world. That there are protests happening daily in his country. That they no longer regard our country as a failed state where there is conflict between the oppressed and the dictators. That they regard our country as a normal state because things happening in our country are not unusual. That the Burmese government now understands that they can’t demonetize banknotes, use the army in dispersing demonstrations, and that the army can’t launch a coup, and if they do not break these rules, the international community has no reason to interfere in the country’s affairs.

At the same time, many student protesters have been arrested recently, with the government reacting in the same manner as it did 20 years ago.

The international community, including the US and UN, opposed this brutal crackdown. But, there is something we need to think about with regard to their choice of words. Their declarations only chose to use words like “regret” and “disappointment”. No statement uses the words “condemn” or “denounce”. In declarations, the choice of words expresses severity.

You mean that the international community has completely toned down its voice?

They have changed the way they think. They will engage constructively with the government. They will tell the government secretly that it is doing wrong, but they will not publicly condemn it.

What are the major achievements and the major failures of the reform process?

There has been the creation of institutional mechanisms. The government is responsible to the parliament, the judicial system is responsible to the president and the parliament. These institutions are not perfect, but they have a framework. This is a very good thing. The military regime in the past was responsible to nobody.

Political prisoners have been released and opposition forces including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were able to join the political fold. There has been an emergence of civil society organizations. The government has admitted the need for internal peace and to fight poverty.

The bad things are there are opposing factions within the government and USDP, even as the top leaders wish for change. The president is not decisive. There are many bad guys in the cabinet. In fact, some of the cabinet members are tarnishing the president’s dignity and he can’t take decisive action against them. There are people who are corrupt or abuse their positions of power in the cabinet. Racial and religious tensions are very high and they may break out into riots.

Many have questioned that if the reform process has been stalled. Nepotism still thrives in these administrative mechanisms and the government fails to address it. Though the government admits that the country is in poverty, it has no economic policies to improve the lives of the poor.

In my view, reforms can’t be completed in three or four years. It takes a longer period. During that period, it may go forward, reverse and stall from time to time. All players must take responsibility. What can we do if we want to remove the influence of evil forces acting upon the president? If civil society organizations view him as an enemy, he would respond in kind. We are calling for national reconciliation. How much the two sides are willing to bury the hatchet is questionable.

The political atmosphere today is in accord with what was set out by the military regime. In many ways it seems things will not change at all and those in charge have always maintained the upper hand.

It is difficult to say that. They have divided themselves. In the past, the military was a single entity. Now it has divided between the military and the USDP. The USDP has been divided in government. Under the constitution, the president and ministers are not allowed to discharge party duties once they join the cabinet. Even if the influence of former Snr-Gen Than Shwe still prevails, it is not that big. Now I see some USDP members who would like to listen to the voices of the people. We need to mobilize more of them. This is something we need to think about. We need to be prepared to cooperate with anyone, should they be the active generals or former military members in the USDP, if they have a desire for the development of the country.

You are a former political prisoner. During your time in the US, you were very critical of the Burmese government. How do you assess the government now?

As I became an individual activist, I took a look at both sides—the government and the democratic forces. And I found that there are both good and bad people in the government. Previously, I thought it was full of bad guys and I was surprised to see that there are also good guys. And this is welcoming. Then I take a look at the democratic forces, which I had joined with in the past. In the past, all of them were good guys. Now, there are shades of grey in both sides.

Now is the time we need to rebuild the country. If we went on like this with these tensions, it would only delay the rebuilding of the country. We are obliged to make things better, building on the current situation. We can’t just be sitting, doing nothing but blaming. Now is the time we need to grasp any available opportunity out of current situation and make things better. We have got breathing space, which is beneficial to both sides.

Do you see any possibility of a true civilian government in the next five to ten years that will be elected through free and fair elections?

I think it is unlikely. We might need to wait 20 more years. I myself was a hardliner. I studied revolutions in Eastern Europe. In those cases, the dictators were toppled by public uprisings, then elected governments came into power. But, those elected governments are not competent and there are corrupt persons among them. The problems left by the former dictators grew larger and the expectations of people diminished. This was followed by economic decline. Finally, people overthrew the governments they had elected themselves and the country became unstable. Egypt is the closest example. I don’t want our country to end like that. I don’t think it is possible to scrap the entire system and build a new one. Even if the new system could be built, there is a high risk the system will return to dictatorship, like in the case of the Soviet Union.

The two sides must make compromises, coordinate and cooperate. There should not be a ‘winner takes all’ concept anymore.