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Q&A: In the New Burma, ‘Democracy Alone is Not Enough’


BANGKOK, Aug 6 (Reporting ASEAN) – “I didn’t want to be a journalist, but of course I didn’t want to be a political prisoner either,” editor and author Kyaw Zwa Moe said, laughing. “But I just did what I believed I should do,” he said at a discussion during the launch of his book ‘The Cell, Exile and New Burma’* in July.

In this chat with Reporting ASEAN’s Johanna Son, the 47-year-old writer recalled how he “fell in love with journalism” after he fled his home country in 2001 and joined the then-Chiang Mai-based ‘The Irrawaddy’ magazine, where he continues to be English edition editor today.  Indeed, it is both ironic, and apt, that Kyaw Zwa should end up being a journalist after all the reading, writing and hiding of books and pens inside the prison cells he had to call home for eight years. He was arrested at 19 years old for his role in August 8, 1988 pro-democracy uprising, went into exile in Thailand after his release and returned to Burma in 2013.

Rather than a typical memoir, the book ’The Cell, Exile and New Burma’ is both personal and impersonal. Through this collection of 32 articles, it tells stories that have been too common to too many people from Myanmar until it started on the bumpy journey of political transition in 2011. Indeed, Kyaw Zwa explains that he chose the book title precisely because the prison cell and exile – as well as being in a ‘new Burma’ – were common experiences of individuals like him, as well as Burma’s past and present leaders.

“I believe that if we want to understand the current Burma political situation, we cannot get rid of these two places,” he said. The notes he has added at the end of the stories in the book, where he can now reveal the real identities of many interviewees and subjects, speak volumes about the recent changes that have taken place in Burma. They are also a reminder to the young generation, for whom much of the past will one day become more distant historical experiences of their elders.

Kyaw Zwa talks about the unfinished story of Burma’s democratic transition, one where he says ‘we got some kind of democracy” but aren’t there quite yet. He discusses the perilous balance between democracy and a return to the past – and how a constitution that protects the military’s role is a fundamental handicap that weakens civilian governance despite the holding of elections that put the National League of Democracy-led government in place in 2016. This is why “I think she (Aung San Suu Kyi) is obsessed with the military” in order to get peace in Burma, Kyaw Zwa adds.

Reporting ASEAN's Johanna Son talks to author Kyaw Zwa Moe. Photo: Aung Myo Thant

“The Constitution is key,” says author Kyaw Zwa Moe (right), at a discussion about his book. Photo: Aung Myo Thant

Below are excerpts from the Jul. 11 book launch by Reporting ASEAN, held at SEA Junction:

Johanna Son: How did you think of this particular form for the book? I saw some descriptions calling it memoirs, but it’s not really memoirs. Can you tell us how you chose this, why a collection of stories, not personal memoirs from start to finish?

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Well, actually I was thinking to write a memoir since I was released from the prison. . . .

As soon as I was released, I tried to readjust myself to my country. But at that time, the country was still under the military dictatorship. One year later, I couldn’t really continue to stay in my home country, because I would be arrested again. So later on, I met many other people, like here, and other people outside the country. All of them were encouraging me to write a memoir about how I survived in the prison, also what happened to my mother who died while I was in prison, something like a personal account. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do it. But luckily, one year after I was released from the prison, I joined The Irrawaddy, which was founded by my older brother. I didn’t intend to be the journalist but after I joined it and I started writing the stories, news reporting and later on analysis, documentaries…I really fell in love with journalism.

So let’s say, I have been busy with the daily news reports all the time. . . but 17 years later, I looked at my old stories, and then I tried to get some stories which are still relevant, which can still explain what happened in my country, to other people. So that’s why I just chose 37 stories out of hundreds of stories I have written over the past 17 years.

Johanna: The first part of the book, though, is more personal. So I think many people are curious about that, understandably. But I think that also that, you did say that when you were working on this project, it also requires you to relive the trauma? Even if it was many years ago. Was that part of why it took you so long?

KZM:I think I don’t really have a trauma, even though I spent eight years in prison. But of course, you know, we always face a difficult time whenever we recall something, something sad or something bad from the past. So one of the examples is when my mother, who was 49 years old at that time, was hit by a vehicle of the military when I was in prison. But that was really coincidence. I was arrested by the military because of my anti-government activism and my political activism. I was arrested by the military, sentenced by the military tribunal. Three years later, in prison, and then I knew that my mother passed away because of that vehicle, which belongs to the military. But it is totally, you know, different.

But you know, for anyone who wants to take something subjectively, or personally, I should have hated the military and the military leader as well. That’s just one of the examples. I can explain (this) to you now, right, (talk about it) lightly. But if you really recall details of that scenario, you have to pass through another difficult time. But to me, (not writing a book earlier was) simply not because of that – I won’t call it trauma. . . . simply, I can’t really focus on the book project so far.

But as I have said, I have had 700, 800 stories so far, all of the stories are related to the pro-democracy movement, and then the military regime, political system in our country and the mindset of the people in different areas from the military, government, to the bureaucrats, to the pro-democracy people, to this government. So that’s why this is still relevant to the people today, and for my country as well. So I tried to repackage these into this book and that would be more interesting, I think, than my memoirs. Because some of the stories are based on my personal account, but some of the stories are based on other people who I interviewed thoroughly. So I was writing the stories, different stories, based on my own experience as well as other people’s experience.

Sometimes we Burmese don’t understand what is going on, to be honest.

Johanna: Can you tell us a bit of those years in exile? How was it for you to know that you might not be able to go back? Because there was a time in history, not so long ago, when in Southeast Asia, we thought that two countries would never change – Burma and North Korea. There was a time when it just seemed so unimaginable, right? And my second question is, what were your feelings when you went back? Was it a different country? Did you feel different?

KZM: I didn’t know when I can go back, but since I joined the movement in 1988, when I was 16 years old, I think I was always optimistic. Even in front of the soldiers, at the forefront of the student (protests), even if I try to run away from the gunshots, I was always optimistic. When I was arrested and sentenced to 10 years, I knew that I would be released one day. I was never depressed. So I try to do something (when) I was forced to be in prison, even in my cell. That’s the type of person I think I am now. So, in the prison, at our time, we weren’t allowed to read and to possess any piece of paper, any pencil, any stationery in prison – for eight years. Every stationery, every piece of paper, pencil, pen, was illegal. I tried to smuggle the goods into my cell, because I was so keen to learn something. I didn’t want to kill the time simply just waiting for the time I would be released. . . . But that was very risky as well, because if I was found with any book, any pencil, my legs would be shackled with iron chains, I would be chained and put into solitary confinement. And I will not be allowed to meet my family as well. So there are punishments, but I took that risk because I wanted to learn something in prison as well. So I think with that kind of hope and the let’s say mission, or whatever you call it, then you can really carry on in your life in prison or in a difficult time. So with that hope, I spent many years in exile as well, 13 years in Chiang Mai, in Bangkok and also in the United States. So, and then later on, in 2012, things started to change, and then two years later, we were allowed to go back.

Johanna:What did you find when you went back? Sometimes when you are away from your homeland for some time, you remember it as it was before, or you imagine what it must be. And then you get your chance to actually test those memories, if you will, or expectations at the same time. Or did it feel really nice, like something you knew and were going back to?

KZM: Well, that was an exciting moment for me, and for the other people like me as well, when they went back home after many years in exile, of course. But you know that everything was uncertain. And even today, everything is uncertain as well, in terms of political transition. There is also this big risk we took that time. Of course, you know, some of my friends were waiting to greet me at the airport. At the same time, there were other people from the ministry of intelligence (units) and (police) special branch as well. We knew that, but I went back. I just got only a five-day visa, to cover the 2012 by-election, when Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide, 40 seats in Parliament. So, sometimes you know, you don’t know what will happen. . . .

That’s good sometimes, to go back, and even to pass through the dark. But you will experience something, and you hope. But at the same time, I didn’t have the high expectation at all because you know nothing concrete would change under the previous government either. Even in this government, we don’t see the very tangible changes yet. So, under the previous government I didn’t expect something, you know, magical…

Johanna: The book covers a lot of the past and a lot of the recent past. What do you think Burma’s past can teach us about the future? What did Burma’s past teach it as well?

KZM: I think history, also the recent past of any similar country, has a lot of rich experiences, for anyone. So for Burma, even Burmese people have been learning to continue to materialize their aspirations since 1948. . . . For example, one big thing is that in 1988, our young students started the 1988 pro-democracy movement on the streets demanding we wanted democracy. And that movement really toppled the military regime and socialist regime. . . . We gained the democracy. We can see that we got the democracy because the government we have now was elected by the people in 2015. They run the government now. It is kind of a democracy. Basically democracy means that you get the government that you voted for; that is a democracy. We got the democracy that’s not perfect at all. But since the beginning we knew that.

But now that is a real example for all of us because democracy alone is not enough. Democracy doesn’t come with civil rights, equality, autonomy, prosperity either. Democracy is just the right you will get when to vote for a party you like. . . . I have been talking about that these days, but some people probably have no idea (about that) in my country. Democracy should come with constitutional liberalism, which is even more important or equally important. So what I mean is that constitutional liberalism is to get a civil right, to get your individual right and to get the rule of law – constitution is the key.

Johanna: Would you agree that fighting a revolution is easier that running a country?

KZM: Well, I think that’s totally different things (laughing). I would say that, totally different things. Probably you know, to be revolutionary, to be activist, you have to have courage and bravery to be arrested, to be tortured and even to be killed. That’s very important ingredient. But to run a government– and you know I am not running the government – but I think to run the government, you need a lot of capacities. A lot of leadership skills as well. In terms of leadership skills, you have to know that you can work with a team as well. I don’t mean the strongman or the strong leadership. What I mean is the qualitatively strong leadership, with a team. Those are very important. So to run a government you need a lot of courage and capacity. You cannot be a single-minded person. You have to be very open and to accept, and to listen to the suggestions by the people around you and by the ordinary people as well.

Johanna:Some people might ask, do you think Burma is a misunderstood country, or that people outside expect too much of it?

KZM: I think so. Because as I said, we were governed by the British (as a) colony for one century. And then at the time, people like Aung San and U Nu and other leaders were also arrested. They were independence leaders. Then the Japanese invaded our country as well. And, as I said again, we are a very diverse country. We have dozens of ethnic (groups) in our country, and we have different dialects as well. So later on the military staged a coup and they ran the country even until now, with the constitution. And so we have a civil war of 70 years. This is a very complex country. So when we say that Burma is very complicated, I would say that the country is complex by layer by layer. Sometimes we Burmese don’t understand what is going on, to be honest. (We) still stay (a) closed society in terms of flow of information. Of course, these days much better than the past. But also the mindset, the mentality of the people – even the current leaders, they don’t really want to talk to the media a lot. And then some authorities have no idea how much they should talk to the media. . . . So it is quite complex, our situation, but at the same time the leadership, I would say that the leadership doesn’t really have a vision and how to solve a lot of problems in our country.

Johanna:  There was a diplomat I interviewed many years ago about Burma and she said ‘you need to know how to scratch Burma’s back to engage with it. So, I’m thinking of what she said. Looking ahead, since you said that you are an optimist, but also a pragmatist, what are the three top challenges that Burma needs to address?

KZM: Three top? Why? Even to choose the three is very difficult. (Laughter from the audience.) So don’t forget that our Big Brother, or the military, is still around. And they officially get the 25% (of seats) in the parliament without contesting in the election. So we have 25% of the military officials in the union-level parliament and also any part of parliament in every region and state. We have 14 regions and states. So they all are there. And as you know that, and there are three posts occupied by the military, according to the Constitution. So in that case, the government, run by Aung San Suu Kyi, cannot purge them. So they are defense minister, home affairs minister, and also the border affairs minister, and of course, the commander-in-chief, who has the power to appoint those ministers. So, constitutionally, the government cannot purge those three ministers. And politically, the government cannot really purge the commander-in-chief either. So they are on top, so far. So if you want to take the lesson again, in 1962, when they staged a coup, if they still want to compare their old military to (that time), they can still purge the government, but the government cannot purge them. That’s a reality in our country as well. . . . It’s quite difficult but the Constitution is one of the main problems in our country. But even within that limited situation, I think that the government, or that we, everyone, can have their own space to do more and more in terms of pushing the boundaries, as I said. Now we were saying that Burma is in the democratic transition. If I have to define that, democratic transition means to dismantle the military from the politics. This is very delicate in our country, very delicate.

At the same time, I will say that the lesson will be there, the skill of the leadership. They have to have a vision and they have to know how much they can maneuver in dealing with this military, and other means as well. And a lot of economic issues, human rights issues, so I think they should also have a vision on what they want to see Burma in five years, in 10 years and in 25 years.

Johanna:Maybe that’s why the book uses the word “evolution” instead of revolution. Right now, it’s not a good time for democracy in Southeast Asia. Are there lessons the rest of us can learn from Burma?

KZM: As I said earlier, I joined the pro-democracy movement in 1988, 30 years back. Now, it is 2018. So we just started, we thought that we could get the democracy in a few years, in following years. Now, as I said, we gained the democracy to some extent. But actually, we didn’t get it yet. But what I want to say is that I didn’t know that when I started joining the movement, (that) this is a process, to build a nation, or to rebuild a nation, and to restructure the entire nation’s society with the millions of population. So I think it will take time; it is very difficult. So for everyone I think, if you are optimistic, if you are positive, it’s not too bad. Look at the United States, what is going on these days. That’s why we can learn from other countries as well.

*For those interested in getting a copy, please write @reportingasean or reportingasean@gmail.com. Books are also available in Yangon, and Manila

(END/JS/Transcription-Yasmin Mapua Tang/Reporting ASEAN/)

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