‘At Least We Have Breathing Space, Which We Never Had Before’

By Htet Naing Zaw 29 October 2014

The exiled Burmese activist Aung Din recently returned to his native country for the first time in 16 years. Many formerly exiled activists have returned since President Thein Sein’s government began introducing political reforms in 2011.

Aung Din was an important student leader during the 1988 democratic uprising. He spent years in Washington D.C. running the influential US Campaign for Burma, which he cofounded. In 2012, he was awarded the Democracy Award by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, together with Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr. Cynthia Maung, Min Ko Naing and Khun Tun Oo.

Aung Din, who is no longer in charge of the US Campaign for Burma, sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw to discuss his experiences as an exiled activist and to share his views on Burma’s democratic transition.

Question: Why have you returned to Burma?

Answer: This is my first return to Burma in 16 years and I am not representing any political organization on this visit. I have just come back here for a while out of homesickness and love for my mother country.

Q: Where have you visited? What changes have you seen since you left 16 years ago?

A: The first place I went to was North Dagon [in Rangoon], where my mother lives. A few days ago, I went to Naypyidaw and then to Pyinmana and many other places. I have made the comparisons and found that there are many changes compared with the country in 1988. In 1988, there were only two social classes: the ruling class of the Socialist Programme Party and the governed—or, the poor.

Now, there are many social classes. The ruling class is comprised of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP], the military and cronies who grew bigger in the time of the previous military regime.

But the life of the governed has not changed. In this age, the ruling class and the cronies are really loaded. The gap between the rich and poor is extremely large. I wandered around the town and found palace-like buildings owned by such and such cronies, as well as many people leading a hand-to-mouth existence.

Q: Why do you think our country has ended up like this?

A: That is quite simple: We were subject to oppression in the time of the Socialist Programme Party and we still can’t walk away from the ruling elite. We rose against the Socialist Programme Party with a popular uprising in 1988, but that uprising was not successful.

That’s why people face hardship now. But the difference is people dare to speak out now—at least we have breathing space, which we never had through successive periods previously. Not only the ordinary people and democratic voices, but also the ruling class has breathing space now. In the past, the ruling class suffered international pressure for their unfair administration.

Now, they can visit countries where they were banned from before and get recognition they have never had before. We have breathing space and they have breathing space also. But one thing is, the air is still polluted. If the air is purified, both sides will be able to breathe to their satisfaction. All sides—I mean the ordinary people, democratic voices and those in power—need to value it, the breathing space after the air is purified.

Q: What activities did you undertake after you left the country?

A: I was arrested in April 1989 and had to spend four years and three months in jail. I went to the Burma-Thai border in 2000 and worked for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners [AAPP]. I then served as policy director in the Free Burma Coalition in the US. The US Campaign for Burma was established in the US in 2003 and I served as its executive director until November 2012.

During that period, we lobbied the US Congress to increase its financial assistance for democratic activities and refugees in Burma up to US$10 million and lobbied the US government to let thousands of Burmese refugees settle in the US.

We urged the US government to impose severe economic sanction against Burma’s military regime in 2003. We urged the US government to raise the issue of democracy in Burma to the UN Security Council. In 2005, Burma’s democracy issue was officially submitted to the UN Security Council for resolution. These are some of the achievements of our activities.

Q: Why did the 1988 pro-democracy uprising fail?

A: Looking back on the uprising, everyone had their own faults. University students started the anti-government protest on university campuses. They did not expect that the entire nation would join the movement. But then, the uprising took place nationwide. We were just ordinary students at that time and did not have the ability to lead the people, so we had to ask political leaders to lead the uprising.

At that time, the administrative mechanism of the Socialist Programme Party was already dysfunctional. The military was the only pillar of it. There emerged forces that supported people in the surrounding areas of Rangoon, but there was no unity among leaders. While there was no single political leadership, the military took advantage and seized power.

Q: The 1988 pro-democracy uprising came to nothing, but now reforms are taking place. Do you think this democratization can succeed? Have we reached a point of no return?

A: Not yet. It depends on how much both sides value the breathing space. On the ground, there is dishonesty, mutual disinterest and conflicts of interest. In particular, some people in the ruling class do not want to accept change. Some want to reverse. In the past, the military was the affiliate of the Socialist Programme Party. Today, the military is a separate entity. The military is stronger than the USDP. The USDP is not an affiliate of the military, but an ally.

Since the military is a separate entity now, changes can’t take place if the military does not follow along, no matter what the government wants to do. Circumstances have already been created for the ruling class and the military to gain the upper hand.

Q: What is your view of Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in Burma’s future political landscape?

A: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still maintains a very big role. But it will depend on how strong she is able to build her party. If the coming election is as fair and free as the 2012 by-election, the National League for Democracy [NLD] can win the majority to form a government on its own. But, we have yet to see if proportional representation will be introduced or not.

So there are questions: How strong has Daw Aung San Suu Kyi built her party? Is she ready to take the reins? If she has prepared properly and systematically, her role will be bigger in the post-2015 period.