Who’s Who in Burma: 2015
By The Irrawaddy 31 December 2015
RANGOON — It was an eventful year for Burma, capped by a historic general election that saw the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) romp to a decisive victory that surpassed even their staunchest supporters’ expectations. In an election year, high-profile leaders such as Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing were naturally a near-constant presence in the news, along with Tin Aye, head of the commission that oversaw Burma’s Nov. 8 poll. But other, lesser known groups and individuals also took their turn in the spotlight this year, including the youth who volunteered during the country’s devastating floods and student activists who bravely led a protest march for education reform that was violently suppressed by the authorities. Here, The Irrawaddy outlines some of the country’s most renowned, respected or notorious figures and groups, from politics, the military, business and other sectors, who were prominent voices in 2015.
The People of Burma
In 2015, Burma was again ranked the most charitable country in the world, according to an annual index published by London-based Charitable Aid Foundation. But this renowned generosity did not extend to the military-backed ruling party when Burmese across the country headed to the polls on Nov. 8 for the country’s general election.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won almost 80 percent of the vote and the right to select the country’s next president. It was a vote of defiance from millions of Burmese who demonstrated that their desire for change has been burning ever since the previous regime ignored the results of the 1990 poll which the NLD also won.
It was not simply the people’s blind faith in Suu Kyi that compelled them to vote for the NLD, but also their bitter experience under decades of repressive military dictatorship. The NLD was resoundingly chosen as the party best placed to take the country forward.
The people’s thirst for change was so strong that, so far, even the military has pledged to ensure a peaceful political transition to a new government. The election result also prompted The Economist to award Burma its “country of the year” honor. “The country’s transition to something resembling democracy has come faster than anyone dared expect,” the magazine said. The people’s courage and determination is largely to thank for that.
Aung San Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD)
If the most significant event in 2015 was the November general election, it would be hard to look passed Aung San Suu Kyi as Burma’s most influential and inspiring figure this year. Her party won a landslide victory on Nov. 8, although the NLD chairwoman is herself barred from assuming the presidency under a constitutional clause written expressly with her in mind. Despite this, Suu Kyi has repeatedly stated she would be “above the president.” Following the election, she held separate meetings with President Thein Sein and Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who promised to facilitate a smooth transition. Suu Kyi also met with former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who referred to her as the country’s “future leader,” according to the ex-junta head’s grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung.
President Thein Sein
Soon after the election in November, when the realization dawned that the ruling party had suffered a humiliating defeat, Thein Sein said the government would allow a new administration to continue the reform process, adding, “don’t worry about the transition.” His words went some way to soothing many concerned Burmese haunted by the memory of the 1990 election, when the then ruling junta refused to recognize the result in favor of the NLD. Thus far, the president has given no sign of breaking his promise. If the transition runs smoothly, Thein Sein will be remembered as the first military-backed Burmese head of state to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s Armed Forces
Under the 2008 constitution, the military chief has powers rivaling the president. Before the election, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing urged service personnel to vote for a party that would protect race and religion. When the result was tallied, the army chief met with Suu Kyi and pledged cooperation. A statement read: “Both sides agreed to follow the people’s wish to collaborate for the country’s stability, rule of law, national unity and development during the meeting.” The commander-in-chief turns 60 in 2016, the official retirement age for civil servants.
Ex-Dictator Than Shwe
Despite ostensibly stepping away from the political scene in 2011, many still speculate that the former dictator Than Shwe continues to wield influence. His meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on Dec. 4 suggested the ex-junta leader still wields some political power. The NLD said the meeting could help ensure a smooth political transition in a country only just emerging from decades of repressive military rule. Observers suggest many in the military are still loyal to their former commander-in-chief. If so, the 82-year-old will likely remain an influential figure despite his withdrawal from public life. After his meeting with the NLD chairwoman, many wonder whether he may hold the key to enabling her to officially assume the country’s top post.
Shwe Mann, Union Parliament Speaker
Shwe Mann, the speaker of Burma’s Union Parliament, was dramatically removed from his post as chair of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a midnight purge on Aug. 12. He has close ties with Aung San Suu Kyi and, despite being a former general, lost popularity in military circles after he expressed support for constitutional reform as Union Parliament Speaker.
Shwe Mann unsuccessfully ran for a Lower House seat in his native Pyu in the November poll. He swiftly accepted defeat and was the first senior member of the USDP to welcome the NLD’s victory, meeting Suu Kyi soon thereafter. He was said to be a key facilitator of the meeting between former Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Suu Kyi in early December. The parliamentary speaker has not publically discussed his future plans, but there are suggestions he could be involved in some capacity with the incoming NLD-led government.
It was billed as a historic agreement that would kick-start a sustainable peace in Burma for the first time since independence. However, only eight non-state armed groups signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in mid-October, with several major ethnic armed groups withholding their support. Alongside other prominent ethnic leaders, Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of the New Mon State Party, a non-signatory group, has consistently called for the nationwide pact to be open to all armed groups. The ethnic Mon leader is a vocal proponent of autonomy and genuine federalism for all ethnic nationalities. Nai Hong Sar is also vice-chair of the ethnic alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council. “He was the main leader who spoke for us,” said Tar Bong Kyaw of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an armed group that Naypyidaw refused to include in the ceasefire pact.
Zipporah Sein is another strong-willed ethnic leader who held her stand against the premature signing of the ceasefire pact despite pressure from the Karen National Union, of which she is vice-chair, whose leadership backed the deal. Prior to the signing, she wrote to key government negotiator Aung Min declining an invitation to attend the ceremony in Naypyidaw while fighting continued in Kachin and Shan states. “The NCA will not be nationwide,” she wrote. Many ethnic Karen support Zipporah Sein for her willingness to stand against the KNU’s leadership and stay true to her beliefs. She is also respected as one of the few prominent female voices in a peace process dominated by men.
Tin Aye, chairman of the Union Election Commission
Few trusted Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) Chairman Tin Aye when the former lieutenant general and ex-lawmaker with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) first took up the role in 2011. He has talked openly about his strong ties to the military and the party he served, fueling further doubt over his capacity to facilitate a free and fair vote in November. Tin Aye and the commission copped their fair share of criticism—particularly over voter list errors and the process for advance voting. However, following a peaceful poll that was widely regarded as the most credible vote since 1990, the chairman placated many of his critics.
Sayadaw U Nayaka, a leading Buddhist monk in Mandalay, founded the Phaung Daw Oo Monastic education school and developed a teaching method different from the typical rote learning education style encountered throughout much of the country. His monastic school was first opened in 1993 as a primary school for disadvantaged children. Ten years later, with renewed emphasis on critical and child centered learning methods, the school expanded to high school level and around 8,000 students were enrolled.
Although the school is under the control of Buddhist monks, there are no restrictions on enrolment based on race or religion. Sayadaw U Nayaka’s vision is to provide opportunities for a high quality education to students from all walks of life, as well as promoting interfaith relations.
“My school aims to give free and better education for every child of different race and religions. It’s not for religious study. If [the students] want to study religion, they can study after school,” the abbot said. For his work developing and promoting a student-centered teaching method radically different to that usually encountered in the country’s moribund public education system, Sayadaw U Nayaka has been shortlisted for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize.
Student activists hit the headlines earlier this year during nationwide protests against a controversial National Education Law passed in September 2014. Their peaceful protest culminated in a standoff in Pegu Division’s Letpadan in March which ended after a brutal police crackdown, leaving several students and their supporters injured and dozens detained. At least 50 students are still in prison, some with serious health concerns, as a drawn out court process continues. Among those under detention include student leaders such as Citizen of Burma 2015 award winner Phyo Phyo Aung, Honey Oo, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko. Three fellow activists Min Thwae Thit, Mar Naw and Kyaw Swar Lin, also in police custody, have been hospitalized for injuries sustained during the violent police crackdown.
Cronies in Changing Times
Long notorious for their links to the former regime and their involvement in plundering the country’s natural resources, many of Burma’s well-known cronies have tried to improve their respective public standings by engaging in “philanthropic works” through various charitable endeavors.
Aung Ko Win, the chairman of Kanbawza (KBZ) Group, has often been in the headlines this year for his conglomerate’s donations, including to those affected by floods that inundated much of the country in July and August. KBZ also provided free flights home for hundreds of trafficked Burmese fisherman who had spent years working in slave-like conditions in Indonesian waters. The group was also active in providing financial and technical assistance toward providing clean water supply systems to towns across southern Shan State. Since the shocking disaster of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the group has spent more than US$98 million on charity work.
Zaw Zaw, the chairman of the Max Myanmar Group, has not hidden his support for Aung San Suu Kyi and may be positioning himself to capitalize on new political realities that will take shape in Burma next year. Aside from his varied business interests in banking, construction, hotels and more, Zaw Zaw is also chair of the Myanmar Football Federation. It was this latter association that was most highlighted mid-year, as football fever in Burma was running high, with the country’s stellar performance during the Southeast Asia Games capped with a finals appearance, where they ultimately succumbed to Thailand.
US blacklisted tycoon Tay Za, chairman of Htoo Group of Companies, is also cultivating ties with the NLD, with his Asia Green Development Bank set to fund training for newly elected NLD lawmakers. Suu Kyi has in the past rejected criticism of such funding offered by businesspersons accused of having close ties with the former regime. “Instead of spending their money on things that have no purpose, they have supported things that they should support,” she told reporters in 2013. Some observers have suggested that, beyond politically motivated donations, such well-endowed conglomerates should pour more much-needed funds into charity projects.
Kyaw Thu, Founder of Free Funeral Service Society — Rangoon
Burmese actor Kyaw Thu and his wife Shwe Zee Kwet co-founded the Rangoon-based civil society organization Free Funeral Service Society in 2001. The organization provides free funeral services for all those in need, regardless of race, religion or any affiliation. Through his organization, Kyaw Thu has also lent support to relief efforts in Burma, including after this year’s nationwide floods.
The FFSS founder’s acting career was stunted by the previous military junta following the 2007 Saffron Revolution. He has served as the president of the organization since 2008. Through his works and his well-earned reputation, the group is seen by many as one of the country’s most reliable and hardworking charities.
Rangoon-based Youth Volunteers’ Network
The youth network was initiated in November 2011 after floods in the central Burma town of Pakkoku and has since continued its activities helping people in need around the country, with a membership now numbering in the thousands. Contributions are based on public donations and many local celebrities have joined the group’s charity events. After flooding hit 12 states and divisions in Burma from July, leaving over 100 people dead and over 1 million affected, the network’s contribution to relief efforts was vital. They were also among the first group that arrived at the Mawchi mine in Karenni State’s Hpasaung Township after a landslide in October this year to assist with rescue efforts.
The Artists That Helped Turn Burma Red
The role of various prominent Burmese artists and performers in the NLD’s election campaign cannot be underestimated. While over 90 political parties registered for the Nov. 8 poll, the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party were the only real competitors at the national level.
While artists were seen at the rallies of both parties, those that graced NLD stages appeared of their own volition, while many ostensibly backing the ruling party were reportedly paid for their support. Among the latter group was “Zune Thinzar,” a social media celebrity known for her racy photo shoots.
At NLD rallies, one song in particular was sung over and over again. Titled “May May Naing Mha Phyit Mhar Bar,” which translates as “Our Mother has to win,” in reference to Suu Kyi, the piece was written by local singer Saung Oo Hlaing for the NLD. It proved to be a hit among red-clad supporters of the opposition party. Along with many well-known local performers, Pan Ye Lan (Flower’s Road), a musical volunteer group known for busking in order to collect donations for the needy, threw themselves into the NLD’s campaign, traveling to remote areas of the country to drum up support.
As the ranks of Burma’s political prisoners increased in 2015, brave local lawyers were as crucial as ever in a country with a notoriously defective judicial system. Well-known lawyer Robert Sann Aung, a nominee for the Martin Ennals Jury Award in 2015, kept up his tireless work defending activists, journalists and ordinary citizens who provoked the authorities’ ire. He took on the case of freelance journalist Par Gyi, who was killed in military custody, and also defended Chaw Sandi Tun who was imprisoned for a Facebook post deemed insulting to the military. The Myanmar Lawyers’ Network (MLN) has also been active, including in assisting students detained since March for involvement in a peaceful protest against the National Education Law, heritage protection and other politically motivated cases.
Hla Myat Tun, LGBT activist
Hla Myat Tun was one of several LGBT activists in 2015 that openly challenged prejudices and discriminatory practices in Burma, demanding equality and acceptance of LGBT persons across Burmese society. He leads an LGBT rights organization, Colors Rainbow, that co-organized Burma’s inaugural LGBT film festival “& Proud,” that aimed to create more space for the LGBT community and constructive conversations and engagement among the broader public. The activist has been working together with the country’s Education Ministry to put gender identity and LGBT issues in high school curriculums. He is regarded as among the most prominent advocates on the issue, alongside Aung Myo Min. He spoke at the UN in Geneva in October on related issues ahead of Burma’s Universal Periodic Review.
Burma’s most outspoken monk is notorious for being labeled the “The Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine in 2013. Ask him of his most prominent accomplishment this year and he would likely reference the set of four so-called “Protection of Race and Religion Laws,” the last of which was passed by Parliament in August. Rights groups have criticized the laws as discriminatory against women and religious minorities. His name has become virtually synonymous with home-grown anti-Muslim nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, of which he is a leading member. So relentless is his Buddhist nationalist rhetoric that earlier this year, the 47-year-old monk infamously referred to UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee as a “bitch” and a “whore” after she criticized the race and religion laws. Though his remarks were widely condemned internationally, no such censure came from Burma’s government. Thus far, the race and religion laws have had a perhaps unforeseen outcome, with the Monogamy Law being invoked in several cases by women against their unfaithful Buddhist husbands.