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Asiaweek - We Have Compromised - 4
- Subject: Asiaweek - We Have Compromised - 4
- From: tinkyi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Sun, 06 Jun 1999 19:45:00
We Have Compromised - 4
But there has been a sense of disappointment or a deflation among people
that nothing happened yesterday on the May 27 anniversary.
"It depends on how political they are. If they study the announcements of
the committee representing parliament, they would know that we have taken
actually a much bigger step than we have done since last September. Because
we are starting to make plans for preparing a Constitution, and for getting
closer to the nationalities. But people are not interested in the real
politics of it, they just want dramatic events."
Do you believe that the people are still behind you?
"Oh, yes, much more now than ever. Because I think we have much more support
now than we had say three years ago, when there were those who thought that
perhaps the government's economic policies were getting them somewhere and
that the country might be improving economically. But last year - well, in
1997, that was really the crunch year for the economy - it became obvious
towards the end of 1997 that things were not going well. And last year it
became even more evident. And because of that, we have more support now than
we had, say, three years ago. I think the best years for the regime were
between 1993 and 1996 from the point of view of the economy. Because at that
time, people really believed that there was going to be a big boom."
You extrapolate dissatisfaction with the economy into support for you?
"No, I don't think so. I think people support us because they are discontent
with the present regime. That's normal in any circumstances. You know,
people support the opposition because they don't like the incumbent. So
whether it's for economic reasons, political reasons or social reasons, it's
not always the same. But I would say that primarily in Burma at the moment
it's for economic as well as political reasons. But I think that it's the
economic reasons which have swung so much support in our favor over the last
couple of years."
How can we gauge your support from the people, aside from getting feedback
from your members?
"You can also look at how cooperative the general public is with the
authorities. I think then you will have some idea of how much they like or
dislike this regime. I mean you can grade the degree of support or lack of
support for the regime that way. And anybody who has studied the situation
here would find that the general public are not really cooperative with the
regime at all. They are reluctantly dragging their feet, going along with
what they are made to do. But you don't find any enthusiasm for the policies
of this regime."
Former ASEAN secretary-general Ajit Singh, when he was sitting with the
regime's Gen. David Abel last night, asked me why Asiaweek did not write
more about you and your party losing support.
"Why is he saying that? Because he obviously wants you to write about it. In
fact, Asiaweek and other Asian magazines have put forward this point of
view. So I suppose they want to emphasize this point of view, which is not
really surprising coming from an ASEAN country."
If an election were held again tomorrow, would you win in comparable style
as in 1990?
"Oh, absolutely. Perhaps even better."
There are those who say that was then and this is now.
"Well, I'll say one thing, it's only if elections are free and fair. I doubt
that if there were an election tomorrow, it would be free and fair because I
think the regime has learned a very hard lesson from the previous elections.
And I think if they were to hold elections tomorrow, they would make sure
that the elections were rigged so that whoever they want to win will win. I
don't think they would allow it to be free and fair elections. Because they
miscalculated very badly in 1990."
There are those who say that the election would not be won by the NLD, it
would be won by you. And it would be won by you because of your name - the
name of your father, Aung San, who is a hero to the people.
"They said this about the last elections too. A lot of people say the last
elections were won because of me rather than because of the NLD. But that's
a matter of opinion."
They say the party is nothing without you.
"I don't think that is true. I would be nothing without the party. After
all, I can't work without a party. And obviously it helps the party to have
me because my father's name still means a lot in Burma."
The rather scabrous cartoons that appear every day in the New Light of
Myanmar do not bother you?
"No, we've got so used to that. That's been going on for a year or two now.
Certainly a long time. We've got quite used to that. We'd be quite surprised
if they didn't come out. In fact, they are one of our biggest assets, as it
were. Because the nasty cartoons have turned a lot of people against this
regime. We get feedback from ordinary Burmese people, from a lot of Burmese
business people who are not particularly political and who I don't think
were really hardline supporters of the democracy movement or anything like
that. They are people who really had not that much against the military
regime either as long as they could make the economy work it was all right.
But when these cartoons and very very vicious articles started coming out in
the government media, the feedback we got was that some of these people just
felt embarrassed. And they began to think that it showed up exactly how the
regime has no standards at all. The nastiness of the cartoons reflects the
nastiness of the regime - and also their low intellectual approach if you
At the ASEAN conference being held here yesterday and today, Gen. Khin Nyunt
gave the keynote speech. He said: "Myanmar is on the right political track
that will guarantee the peace, stability and prosperity of the nation." Is
the country on the right track to prosperity?
"Well, it's certainly not prospering. I don't agree with that statement at
all. Let's put it like that."
You have said in the past that things are worse now than they were under the
Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) - the regime led by Gen. Ne Win from
1962 to 1988?
"Yes, I think a lot of people would agree with that. It's much better now
for a few people. The economic opportunities that have come into the hands
of a few people have made them very very wealthy; but in general I think
Burma is much worse off. Take the lack of electricity. It was not this bad
under the BSPP. Now there is a very very bad shortage of electricity. I
think in some cases a shortage of water as well. Because in many places even
in the middle of the city, people depend on electicity to crank up water
from the ground floor to the upper floors. So no electricity means no water.
And if the electricity only comes on at 12 o'clock at night they have to get
up at 12 o'clock in order to get water in while they can."
"And look at the state of the schools and hospitals. They are much worse now
than they were under the BSPP. Because under the BSPP, I don't think that
there were complaints that there were no medicines in the hospitals. Or no
equipment. There was a certain lack of sophisticated equipment and perhaps
they did not have all the medicines necessary. But the situation was much
better. But now they have nothing in the hospitals."
"And the same thing for the schools. The schools under the BSPP were not all
that hot, but now they don't have basic things like textbooks. Although in
some schools they have built up these fancy computer showrooms with
computers which are kept under lock and key, except for demonstration
"So I think one can say that we are much worse off. And of course, if you
look at the statistics collected by an agency like UNICEF, which is nothing
to do with either the democracy side or the military regime, you would find
that the percentage of people who don't go to school at all is rising. And
the percentage of elementary school dropouts is also rising."
Yet people who came here during the 1980s say that the roads then were all
potholled, that there was only one decent hotel in Yangon where you got a
candle when you checked in and so on; whereas now the roads are okay, there
are lots of cars and the place is full of hotels.
"As I said, for some people it has got better. I said for the privileged
people it has got better. But how many Burmese people use these hotels
anyway? How many Burmese people are going to fly in after a holiday abroad?
So for those who can do it, yes, it's better."
Someone mentioned to me that, of course, even the military men suffer from
power outtages and other hardships from the economic situation, so it's not
as if they are benefitting from this.
"It depends on where you are. You can be a quite low-ranking officer, but if
you happen to be in the right place i.e. a place where you can make a lot of
money, where people like to bribe you, or where you are in a position to
dictate how people live, then you can get very very wealthy. But a higher
ranking officer who is in a position where there are no bribes coming in,
then he will not be well off. And of course the rank and file are not well
They may not be well off, but everyone seems to agree that there are no
signs of unrest by younger officers, no signs of dissatisfaction.
"Well, there are always rumors about dissatisfaction because the soldiers
are poor. The rank and file are poor. They don't get enough to eat. And I
think you will find that a number of families of soldiers are putting up
little stalls, little snackbars, in the areas where they have barracks
because the husbands are not earning enough. That you can see everywhere all
over the place."
Businessmen tell me that the kyat economy is doing quite well, growing by 3%
to 4% annually; that it is only the dollar economy that is doing badly.
"What do they mean by the kyat economy doing well?"
Using kyat for purchases, trade and whatever, it's only things that you need
to import, or the national projects where foreign currency is used and where
there's a lack of foreign exchange, that are really hurting.
"Yes, but what do they mean by the economy doing well? Of course, we buy
things with the kyat, if that's what you mean. That we go on doing. But with
the rate of inflation, business has dampened down. Ordinary foodstalls or
restaurants, eating places, where you pay in kyats, I think there are fewer
customers there too."
Even in rural areas?
"Even in the rural areas people are having to tighten their belts. But in
the rural areas, of course, there are not that many economic enterprises
growing as there are in the urban areas. In the rural areas there are mainly
farmers and the agricultural economy is not doing all that well. For
example, recently because the rain started so early this year, in April, I
was told that the peanut crop has been really bad. So that's going too
affect peanut farmers hard. And that also means that the price of peanut oil
is going to go up."
Yet few seem to think that the weak economy will lead to political change.
They think the people will just struggle on as they have done for the past
forty years or so.
"It always surprises me when people make remarks like that. Considering the
fact that in 1988 what happened happened really because of the economy."
Well, it was the demonetarization of some of the kyat notes that really
caused that to happen, wasn't it?
"Yes, but that hurt them economically. The fact that some of the kyat notes
were demonetized didn't really bring about a revolution at all. It was
nearly a year before the 1988 demonstrations broke out, but in the meantime
of course the people had been getting poorer and poorer. And the economic
hardships were getting worse and worse. And so it was a culmination of many
economic hardships. I think economic reasons have always played a fairly big
part in political revolution."
Is that what you are seeking: a political revolution?
"We are seeking a political revolution simply through political means. By
doing politics which is what we are doing, and which is what the government
is trying to prevent us from doing. So if a revolution breaks out, it will
not be of our doing. It will be because the government has more or less
blocked all other paths to political change."
Would you support the people if unrest like that breaks out?
"If you mean that would I support violence, no I would not support violence.
Because I don't think that violence really does anybody any good. But if you
mean that would we support a spontaneous demonstration by the people for
better conditions, certainly we would. Why shouldn't we?
We know that there is a need for better conditions."
If an NLD government came in, would it broadly follow a market economy?
"Yes, we have actually brought out a couple of papers of our economic
policy, but people never read them. Then they ask what is our economic
policy. They say: don't you have an economic program? When in fact we have
brought out a number of papers on this and most foreign correspondents don't
read them. And then they ask us what our economic program is."
You continue to believe that economic sanctions against your country are a
"I think sanctions are effective. The government says two things. Sometimes
they say that sanctions have no effect whatsoever so they don't care about
them - in which case, why are they making a fuss. And then sometimes they
say that sanctions are hurting the ordinary people in Burma. But when they
say that the sanctions are hurting the ordinary people of Burma, then that
does not sound good either because that's tantamount to saying that they are
different from the ordinary people and that their life is quite different.
So either way you look at it, the regime's approach toward sanctions is
inconsistent and not very uplifting. But we think that sanctions have been
effective, because as the United States is such a strong economic power,
then when sanctions came in, potential investors started looking into the
situation very carefully. And then they found that there were many things
that they didn't like about the business practices and the invesment laws of
Burma. And that is why they backed off. Not simply because the U.S. brought
There are those who say that sanctions are a bankrupt policy, that they've
never really worked and that all they are doing is bringing hardship to the
people of your country?
"Well, they are not causing hardship to the people of the country. That we
can say. So to people like that, I would just say that: prove it, prove that
sanctions are hurting the people of the country. And they can't really prove
it. The US sanctions are not such that they in any way effect the Burmese
economy as it is to a great extent. The ones who are hurt are the ones who
are right at the top, who were thinking of having dealings with American
firms. Because the sanctions didn't get rid of all investments; it was just
that no new investments could come in. So, whom does that hurt? Only those
who were planning to work with American companies. And how would that help
the ordinary people? I just don't know how they argue that it hurts the
But they might argue that if there were no sanctions then there might be
investment in infrastructure projects that might alleviate the power
shortage and other things that make life so difficult for ordinary people.
"But what is the proof that any American firm was thinking of doing that
kind of infrastructure work anyway? There is no proof of any kind. There
were some individuals who had plans to go into business with American firms,
but not on things like that. It was for their own personal profit. And I
suppose sanctions have hurt people like that. But not the ordinary people of
You disagree with those in ASEAN who continue to invest in your country?
"I think a lot of people are losing. A lot of the ASEAN investments here are
not doing well at all. If you look at the hotels you would get a good idea
of how badly they are. How big a percentage of their rooms are full?"
I think you said once that the ASEAN economic crisis was helping your cause,
is that a correct interpretation?
"I don't know whether I said it was helping us as such, but I think I may
have said the ASEAN economic crisis made the problems of Burma much more
evident to others. Because they were not able to help Burma, they were so
busy with their own problems. And then the economic incompetence of this
regime became more obvious, with nobody to bale them out."
In that earlier statement of Khin Nyunt's at the ASEAN meeting here, he also
spoke of the government bringing peace and stability. People say that a
major achievement of the regime has been to settle the ethnic insurgencies.
Do you agree?
"They have had the ceasefire agreements, but they are still ceasefire
agreements. They don't seem to have come to any longterm political solution.
Because the ceasefire groups are still holding onto their arms. And that in
itself creates an element of instability, because members of the ceasefire
groups can just go into the big cities of Burma with revolvers at their
hips. And it is illegal for ordinary Burmese citizens to go around with a
lethal weapon. But members of the ceasefire groups, I suppose the officials,
can be seen around with their guns."
So would you say that the regime has achieved a halfway step in bringing
stability and curbing the ethnic fighting?
"They've got the halfway step, yes. But I don't know about stability. If
they are so confident of the stability of this country, why haven't they
reopened the universities?"
They may regard that as a different issue from dealing with the border
"Well, it's all to do with stability, isn't it. You can't say it's a
There are worries, especially in the regime, but also outside, that if you
come to power the country will be plunged into a Yugoslavia or Indonesia
type situation, with ethnic fighting flaring up all over the place.
"I don't buy that at all. It's such a silly idea that I don't really even
think it's worth discussing in great detail. But if you must go into the
Yugoslavia problem, the animosities, the hostilities, between the various
racial groups in Yugoslavia go back to the 12th century."
Do they not go back just as far here between the different ethnic groups? -
the Shan, Wa, Mon, Arakans and so on?
"Not quite in the same way. The Wa is a new element. We've had wars between
the Mons and the Burmese, and between the Arakanese and the Burmese. Not so
much with the Shans, although there have been squirmishes with individual
Shan chieftans, Shan rulers. But the kind of problems that existed in
Yugoslavia, I think were exacerbated by the years of totalitarian rule. When
people were not allowed to work out their differences through a pluralistic
political system. And the tradition of settling their differences through
violence was never really removed. It hasn't been removed in Burma either.
Because the regime itself is trying to resolve problems through violence.
Putting people in prison is violence. Killing people is violence. They are
still using violent means to resolve problems, and violence never really
resolved problems. It may keep them under control to a certain extent. So I
don't think that their methods are going to bring about permanent peace."
But people still fear that if there were an NLD-led government tomorrow
there would be a holocaust.
"Well, if you look back to what Burma was like after independence, I don't
think you can say that. The first Karen insurgencies of course started the
moment Burma became independent, because some groups did not accept the
Burmese government, or rather a government dominated by Burmese. But in
those days under parliamentary democracy, yes there were insurgencies which
were really a legacy of the war. There were Communist insurgencies, and
there were a few ethnic insurgencies, but the number of ethnic insurgencies
really increased dramatically under the BSPP. So you cannot really say that
it was democracy that led to all these ethnic dissatisfactions."
You believe it might be the dictatorial nature of the regime, the
repression, that caused that?
"Yes, because people were not allowed to express their dissatisfaction
through acceptable political channels. The only way they could express their
dissatisfaction was by taking up arms."
There are people in countries that border Myanmar, certainly in Thailand,
who worry about what will happen if you come to power, whether they will
have fighting all along their border.
"I think they should worry about their own country. We'll worry about ours."
But you acknowledge that the regime has come halfway to bringing some
measure of stability?
"I won't say stability. I think stability is a different issue. But I think
we will say that they have come halfway to bringing an end to armed ethnic
I drove to Mawlamyine last weekend and passed over two new bridges. The road
is greatly improved, you can drive all the way there without needing to take
a ferry any more. Has the regime also done some good in this regard?
"But isn't putting up bridges and building roads the job of any government?
If you are going to talk like that then we'll have to start making a list of
all the bridges and the roads and the railways lines that were put up by the
colonial government. If you are going to say that good government is one
which builds bridges and puts down roads and railways, then we'd have to
favor the colonial government as a very good government. But I doubt that
the regime would accept such a definition. So, all right, they have put up
bridges, there is nothing wrong with it, and bridges are a good thing - if
they are built strongly and won't fall down under the weight of too many
cars; but this is just normal work that any government would be expected to
do and I would not think that this is a justification for a military regime
to keep clinging to power."
Members of the regime often say that you may disagree with much of what we
do, but there is never any acknowledgement of the good things we do.
"Well, wouldn't you have thought that the ASEAN countries acknowledge it
more than enough? To make up for whoever it is who do not. A lot of the
ASEAN countries talk about the ceasefire agreements, and they also talk
about the so-called economic boom - but they've stopped talking about that
now, although two or three years ago they were talking about the hotels, the
cars and the roads and so on. So what does the regime mean by saying nobody
talks about it? People talked about it a lot. But they've stopped talking
about it, because you can't go on talking about the hotels when the hotels
are empty. And you can't go on talking about the roads when the roads are
empty of the expected new traffic. You can't go on talking about them again
and again. How often do we expect people to go on talking about bridges and
roads and hotels?"
But they feel that it would be nice if the West, which has led the move to
sanctions and pretty relentlessly criticizes them, would occasionally
acknowledge that they have done something that benefitted the people. It
might be a gesture that might bring a response.
"The West would be least inclined to be impressed by hotels and roads and
Why? This is more than a lot of developing countries do.
"I don't think the West would be impressed by hotels. The tourists might be
pleased with them. Bridges, yes. I'm not sure that bridges are really
considered that impressive any more."
The regime feels that this begrudging attitude towards them makes them feel
that if they do something positive, if they move towards you in a
conciliatory gesture or whatever, that all they will get is to be ignored or
"But what sort of gesture have they ever made?"
They spoke to some of your people two or three years ago, they allowed you
to have your Congress last year, but each time they do this the ante is
raised and they are expected to do something else.
"Oh, no, when we were allowed to have the Congress, we were very very loud
with our words of appreciation. Yes, we said we appreciated the fact that we
were able to hold the Congress. So it's not true. Every time they made a
gesture we acknowledged it - but to the degree of the importance of the
gesture. Not more than that. But it didn't mean that after acknowledging the
gesture then we sat back and did nothing. Because we went ahead with our
work. But we certainly said that we appreciated it very much. I said it
myself so I should know."
The ASEAN policy of constructive engagement is one which you feel is not
"It hasn't succeeded. What has it done? When ASEAN was considering Burma as
a permanent member a couple of years ago, we made two points. One was that
admitting Burma as a member would make the regime more repressive, because
they would think that their policies have been endorsed. They would see it
as a seal of approval. Or, at least, if it was not a seal of approval it was
a sign that the ASEAN countries didn't mind about the human rights record of
the military regime. And the second thing we said was that Burma under this
military regime was not going to be an asset to the organization. And I
think we can claim that both these views have been vindicated."
They are more repressive since joining ASEAN?
"Oh, they have got much much more repressive since they became a full member
of ASEAN. And I don't think that really Burma is much of a credit to ASEAN
these days. It's not exactly a shining example for them."
The US espouses constructive engagement on China but not on Myanmar. This
inconsistency puzzles many people, even Western diplomats. How do you
"I think the situation in China is different. And surprising as it may sound
to some people, we think that Chinese dissidents have a much better deal
than we have. In China, even when I was under house arrest, I would listen
to the radio and I would be surprised by the fact that families of
dissidents could talk to foreign correspondents and express their concern
about their husbands and fathers and they would not be arrested. They would
have these interviews quite freely. And I think the Chinese are quite
sensible about give and take as regards dissidents. And with give and take
with the Western democracies. The military regime here is far more
intransigent and that's why I think one can say that constructive engagement
with China bears more results than constructive engagement with Burma. I
don't see any sort of give and take with regards to human rights taking
place here - either between Burma and the Western democracies, or between
Burma and the ASEAN countries."
Has there been any give on the other side?
"Yes. But no give on the side of the regime. This is what we say ad nauseum
as well, that the regime does not want give and take, but they take all and
we give all. But that's not what you mean by give and take. It's meant to be
a bit of both on both sides."
Talking about how they treat you, Dr Mathahir once said it's not as if you
are being strung up.
"Well, that's right. Again that's his personal opinion. And it's not one
with which we agree."