Maureen Aung-Thwin

Maureen Aung-Thwin is the director of the Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative at the Open Society Foundations. Born in Burma, she is on the Asia Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch and is a trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation.

Maureen Aung-Thwin is the director of the Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative at the Open Society Foundations. Born in Burma, she is on the Asia Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch and is a trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation.



Could you walk us through some of the historic milestones of Burma?

If I could go back a little bit before the past fifty years, you know Burma was a kingdom and then it was under the British for about almost 100 years, so a British colony, and then right before World War II it was occupied by the Japanese occupied forces, and then Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the founder of the modern Burma and the modern Burmese army, helped drive both the British and the Japanese out. You know, what he did was he switched alliances. And then we had, most people don’t know, we had about twelve years of parliamentary democracy between ’40 and ’62.   Actually, right before ’62, there was a caretaker government to the military, but that was something that the parliamentary government said, “Please come and take it over, there’s a crisis.” Then the military returned to the barracks and then in ’62 they just took over in a coup and there’s been nothing since military government, not government, but military rule-dictatorship, since 1962 until now.

After the military took over, in the early 1960s, through the current time, were there any moments you can think of that might have been an opportunity for change there?

Well the biggest opportunity for change was probably in 1988, when the whole nation rose up in protest. Mostly it was an economic issue; but of course, they harbored many other feelings against living under dictatorship, but it’s always the economy is stupid. You know, that really cracks up the matter, so that was in ’88 and, you know, there were no international media agencies based in Rangoon, the capital, or anywhere else. You know, visas for anybody were hard to come by, much less for journalists. You know, you weren’t allowed to come in as a journalist.

So, like, did it happen? Did the protest happen because there was no international; CNN wasn’t there? Well, it did happen, but it was not seen in real time around the world. That’s not why it failed.  There was harsh crack down, and thousands of people, students especially, who led the protests were killed or they went into exile. So that was a huge moment and that’s when Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader, came back accidentally, she came back to tend to her sick mother and then sort of, just by chance, happened to be caught up in the protest movement, so that was one of the moments. And then there were some moments in the ‘90s as well, but not as big as the 1988. And the next big one was what we called the Saffron Revolution, the monks took to the streets in 2007, and again it was an economic issue; but again the subtext was the repression, having to live under military rule.

Could you tell us about the Burmese economy and what sort of interests might be in some of the natural resources there?

Well, Burma’s probably one of the richest naturally endowed countries in the entire world. You mentioned one of the tiger economies; it was supposed to be the tiger economy right after World War II and independence. It was supposed to be the first over everybody, over the Philippines, over Singapore, over Malaysia, you name it.  And of course, it’s not because the military took over in ’62, they ran a quasi-socialist centralized economy, they didn’t really understand modern economics, and basically ran this very rich country to the ground; and that’s what we’re dealing with. But it still has huge riches — in a way of course, by the military not knowing what to do — some of these riches are still intact, but many, especially the gems and natural gas oil, the biggest sector of investors from outside is in that.

You mentioned, both in the late ‘80s and in the late ‘90s, social change was driven by economic concerns. What are some of the concerns that the people have in terms of the economy today?

Well, most of the country — I don’t know what percentage, maybe seventy-five  to eighty percent — does not even have electricity. So, here’s this country that is selling vast amounts of natural gas; that’s providing Thailand next door, which is a big booming capitalist country, with electricity; and starting now to supply China, especially the southern part of China, which is also a huge booming area, with electricity and energy that its own people doesn’t have, that they don’t have at all in Burma.  They don’t have public health, they don’t have any public health services to speak of. The education system, which was once the envy of the region; in fact, there were Western professors who used to  teach in Rangoon University. It was like the model, everybody wanted to go and teach there and learn there; that has all been devastated in the past fifty years.

What are some of the other factors coming into play that led to that situation today?

Well, the Junta was actually exploiting the economic potential and getting rich; or some of the people in the Junta and economic crony allies were the ones raking in the profits from the economic development or the extractors, anyway. They were providing with, say, a billion dollars a year, but none of the Burmese citizens were seeing that.

Well, you know, some of us used to cynically say that, “Burma is so rich that it can last this military; this inept military regime can last forever because it’s just so rich that they’re never going to run out of resources, or fish, or shrimp, or fruit, and that kind of thing.” But after a while, even the military regime, even an isolated military regime, starts to realize that: one, they cannot not deal with a modern economy, where the people who used to treat them as the beloved independence army hate them! They detest them so much because they’re cruel; their human rights abuses against their own people.

I mean, here’s a regime that has been; the army has been fighting its own people, in civil wars and in skirmishes, for longer than any other country. And there’s no external threats, so why does it? It’s also a huge army. You know, it’s around 400,000 for a population of about 60,000,000; so that’s hugely disproportionate compared to other countries in the region.

Another reason that I think is that there are some reformers and some people in the regime — probably exposed to the outside world, have traveled  for whatever reasons, attended regional meetings — who see neighboring countries that have railway lines, sky trains, shopping malls. Not that that’s all the greatest things in modernization, but they had electricity 24/7, which is something that a Burmese person does not have. They have internet, they have education systems, and their children are able to go on to graduate school in the west and other places.  So they saw some of this; some of the Juntas own children of course are living abroad and knowing that when they go back home, they’re going like backwards, so that also was part of it. Then, you know there are always one or two leading figures in a military regime, and I don’t put it totally that they also didn’t like get enlightened for whatever reason.

I happen to know that the senior general Than Shui, who was supposedly retired in 2010 when there were elections and the elected president took over, that he was starting to worry about being tried for the human rights abuses personally, as well as the people around him. So, there was talk about a commission of inquiry, for example, in U.N. circles. And even though they always denied it, they hated, it obviously struck some chord somewhere.

What has been the impact of China on the leadership of Rangoon?

Well, you know, Burma and China have always had a sort of love-hate relationship, because it’s the biggest country right next door, so you can’t ignore it. We want to be friends – the Burmese want to be friends with China, but because a lot of Chinese were part of the economy before the military took over. So you see, the Burmese people have not always been in charge of their own economy, even before the military. During the colonial period, Indians and South Asians were there in charge of the economy. Then lots of Chinese were involved in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so there was some backlash actually, because of resentment.

So when ’88 happened and the Western world sanctioned Burma and cut off the political relationship; China said, “No we’re still your friend, we accept you.” So Burma was forced to turn to China as its main patron; but reluctantly, I think. I think there was ambivalence about it. Very recently there was a cancellation or a postponement of a huge hydroelectric dam that was being built by government interest and Chinese private interest; the current president cancelled it because he said it was the will of the people, the people decided they didn’t need the huge mega-project that was being built on a fall line and was going to displace thousands of villages in a very sacred place that belonged to the Kachin ethnic population; I mean that was in the Kachin state.

So China was forced to be sort of the main patron. At the same time, I think when the regime realized that there were other ways to turn; when the government changed in Washington, there were efforts to re engage with Asia. That was talk but there was also some demonstration that Asia was going to be more important. So, I think they realized that they could; they didn’t have to be dependent totally on China.

Burma is slated to be the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, and I wonder if you could talk about that as sort of a milestone. Is that something that you think could change the region even more?

So Burma’s chairmanship of ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, in 2014 is fraught with both opportunities and challenges because Burma, infrastructure-wise, is not ready for an onslaught of tens of thousands of journalists and visitors, all year round. By the way, when you’re chairman you have to hold hundreds and hundreds of meetings. So you have to have people who can translate and who know English very well, who can plan meetings. You have to have places for the meetings. You have to deal with a lot of foreign journalists who might roam around your country and write about things that you don’t want them to see. So, they’ve got huge challenges there.

At the same time, once they said they were going to have it, it will force it to become more open, just because of what they are going to do. They can’t put, you know, ASEAN regional journalists; they can’t censor them, they can’t put them away, and they can’t really stop everybody from really learning about the whole country. So I think that’s going to be; I’d be very nervous, I wouldn’t want to organize it, but I think that’s a good opportunity for change.

Is it a tit for tat in terms of you know, the United States will lift more sanctions as Burma opens up for reform?

Well the United States government always had the biggest sanctions, the most far-reaching sanctions, on Burma. The Europeans had sort of diluted sanctions and they were all itching to roll them back. They were more token, I would say. And of course nobody else had any sanctions at all. Canada did have some sanctions and Australia also, but other than that, that was it. The U.S. was the big sanction here, so to speak. So when things started to change in 2008, with the new U.S. administration wanting to be more engaged; the U.S. government said, “We’ll do tit for tat. The more you change, the more we will be open,.” Implying that there’s possibly a rollback, albeit in a sequence of sanctions; because there were so many sanctions in place, there were many things to roll back.

So the changes in Burma took everybody by surprise, or the so-called changes in words, let’s put it that way. There are lots of laws and rules still not on the books, the constitution has not changed and we don’t know how long some of these changes will last if it’s not legislative. But, they came thick and fast that the U.S. — especially the business, the private lobbyists, the private interests, who really have not had a chance to invest in Burma because of the sanctions, were itching to reward the changes that had taken place. So that’s why the rollback of suspension of most of the sanctions has happened as rapidly, to keep up with the changes perceived to be going on inside Burma.

It seems that there is a face to this sort of democratic reform in Aung San Suu Kyi, and the U.S. and the international community has really allowed one person to sort of embody all the for change in Burma.

Yes, that’s a danger in putting all the — if you have to put it on one person, and I’m glad that Aung San Suu Kyi’s there to put it on, because she’s sort of an impeccable icon of change and democracy. She’s been there for the long fight, mostly in house arrest or in prison, and now she herself has decided to compromise, to play the political game, to work with the government toward lasting change. Since she was the one that the legislators in America were looking forward to, that gave them a chance as well to compromise and to be less critical of Burma. But definitely, that’s a big danger; and we should not forget that there are many political prisoners still and they’re activists and democrats as well, just not as well known as Aung San Suu Kyi.  But there’s a thriving civil society. People don’t believe it, but there really is a civil society in Burma. It’s just that it was underground, under the radar, because it was unlawful to be not registered and doing things that the regime didn’t like. When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma and 130,000 people estimated were killed, and the regime didn’t know what to do — because to accept foreign assistance also made them vulnerable; they thought of a foreign invasion, that they’ll never leave — but what the Burmese people saw was their government refusing to help their own people. So suddenly, it was almost overnight, people from all walks of life stream in their cars, they stopped their work and they all went  down to the delta to help their fellow citizens. Some of them were arrested because they didn’t have the proper license and the government tried to harass them; but it just made it worse and it emboldened this civil society, which is still alive and well. I mean, I’m glad to report that you see them now out in the open going on and promoting the kind of things that they should have been permitted to do many decades ago.

What reforms would you like to see the regime make in the next year that would really continue this process?

I would like the regime to be very serious about its reform. So instead of saying, “Okay, you know we’re suddenly not going to censor publications;” in practice they actually are censoring less, they’re not interfering with publications The rules are still there, the laws are still there that can get you in trouble, that can land you back in jail. So laws need to be changed. The constitution, many parts of it need to be changed, and the institutions everywhere need to be strengthened; so you have to institutionalize democracy so to speak. You know, open society. The judiciary has to be totally independent. There’s got to be free media, access to information; not just, it’s got to be embedded in law. That’s what I’d like to see happen as soon as possible.

How can the U.S. and its allies influence the region? And what do we have to offer that will make the regime want to actually make a difference in these reforms?

Of course, a big carrot is always money and aid, but you have to be careful with that because so much is needed, so much needs to be rebuilt and reworked and introduced and scaled up; and just money alone won’t fix it. And  in a lot — thirty to fifty years — it’s going to make things worse if you start investing without accountability and transparency; it’s just going to basically entrench the special interests, the crony capitalists, the oligarchs, and it’s going to keep some of the same power structure — even if they call themselves civilians, they’re still former generals.

So what you want to do, what’s happened in some other countries, like Russia; you want to avoid the semblance of democracy, when in practice things are much worse. We don’t want to be the ones; the United States should not be the ones doing that harm. The United States is still a huge market, is still a huge player in the international economics and in aid, so the United States just has to be like the champion in transparency, has to show the example. Fortunately, the technological revolution and internet and Facebook and citizen journalism, it’s going to be a little easier for the ordinary person, the ordinary Burmese, to monitor some of this themselves.