As the Burmese new year begins, democracy veteran U Win Tin warns that its transition is being threatened by dark forces as Aung San Suu Kyi struggles to maintain her moral authority, writes Ellen Wiles
It is New Year’s Day in Burma. For the annual thingyan festival the streets have been wild with water spraying and drenched revellers. Just weeks ago an anti-Muslim killing spree was ravaging the streets of Meikhtila, and had begun to spread around the country. Many are breathing a sigh of relief that the increasingly boozy annual street festivities did not result in a resurgence of violent behaviour. But U Win Tin, 84-year-old co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party back in 1988 reflects on the recent violence and on the country’s future prospects with foreboding.
U Win Tin was a political prisoner under the Burmese military junta for almost 20 years. He was kept in solitary confinement, tortured repeatedly, had all his lower teeth kicked out and was denied dentures, was sent to live in the ‘dog house’ with no family visits for seven months, and was refused pen, paper and reading material. In the face of all that, he managed to make his own writing materials to compose poetry, smuggled in a radio and produced a secret prison news bulletin. He even coordinated corruptible prison officers to compile a report on human rights violations in prisons, which he smuggled out to the UN.
Before his imprisonment he was an eminent journalist, founder of a daily newspaper and an independent press council, and he spearheaded the political activism amidst which the NLD was founded. On the day of his release from prison he went straight back into active politics, and last year he set up the U Win Tin Foundation to support continuing political prisoners. He knows perhaps better than anyone the importance of democracy, human rights and the rule of law for Burma and the perils of military rule. He also knows the signs of the underhand tactics of military men who still have a grip on power in the country.
The recent religious violence has been ugly. It has been ugly not only because of the large number of people killed and houses burned, and the thousands of internally displaced people that have resulted, but also because of the vehement anti-Muslim hate speech that has been spreading all over the country through a ‘969’ campaign. This campaign has been propagated through the preaching of a handful of radical Buddhist monks, the distribution of ‘969’ posters accompanied by directives not to shop in Muslim shops or to go out with Muslim girls, and a persistent campaign on Facebook, involving the posting of inflammatory pictures, alongside text painting Muslims as evil and violent.
U Win Tin told me that the origin of the violence and the 969 campaign is complex, but one thing is clear: “provocateur elements are at work”. The violence, he said, has “three elements” to it. The first element is a few extremist Muslims. The second element is a number of extremist Buddhists, notably led by two influential monks – Wirathu and Shwe Nya Wa. The third element is a group of “political extremists”. He says that the identity of these people is not yet known, but all hands are pointing to military men. They may be “government officials”, or “military intelligence officers”, or the “former clique of Than Shwe” – the country’s former military dictator, who is still widely believed to wield influence over his appointee, the current president, Thein Sein. He reminded me that “even Thein Sein is a former military leader”, and that “all his cronies and friends are ex-army men”.
What evidence points to government involvement? U Win Tin told me that at the time of the violence, around “one hundred motorcycles rode to the scene for over 70 miles, when the lighting was cut off in the area around the route, and telephone lines had been disconnected. There was no police to stop them. And they knew where all the Muslims lived – when they got there they had a list of their addresses. So there must have been some contact with the government.”
I asked him why the government would have wanted to engineer violence of this kind at this time. He said that it is “connected with the conflict in Rakhine state”, and it “may be about proving the dominance and need for the military” at a time when democratic reforms appear to be progressing. He told me that in one Burmese journal, they quoted an old woman on the street, who was found crying. When asked her views, she said: “Than Shwe, if you want to take power again please just take it, and stop these killings!” This, he said, “is how the people are reacting”.
I asked him his views about the Letpadaung copper mine protest and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in it. This is another key incident which has overshadowed Burma over the past year, and it is representative of the country’s approach to development, human rights, and the rule of law, as well as Suu Kyi’s political leadership. Until now, U Win Tin has been an unflinching supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, his party’s leader, but this incident has prompted him to criticize her publicly.
The Letpadaung mine is a major, 60-year project being developed by a Chinese company in partnership with the military government. It was opposed from the start by local rural farmers, hundreds of whom stand to lose their land and their livelihoods as a result of it – land which is fertile for agriculture and would be ruined for the foreseeable future by such a mine. At a peaceful protest at the site, supported by over a hundred monks, the police threw bombs at the protestors. The bombs caused fires and horrendous burns to hundreds of people, and proved to contain white phosphorous: an illegal chemical weapon by international standards. An independent report by two NGOs revealed that the Chinese company compelled rural workers to sign agreements, without having sight of the text, giving up their right to their land completely for minimal compensation to the value of their current crops, not even including the price of their land and future source of income. A large group of rural workers refused to sign anything. They requested permission to protest peacefully multiple times – a requirement of Burma’s restrictive law on public assembly – and were refused every time. When work on the mine started, they decided to protest peacefully. The response was a violent attack by the police, a public authority. Aung San Suu Kyi was made head of an investigative commission to look into the mine. The commission recently produced a report recommending that the mine go ahead as planned, with some additional compensation for rural landowners. It concluded that nobody could be held responsible for the police attack on peaceful protestors, and it failed to condemn the use of white phosphorous bombs as an abuse of human rights.
U Win Tin said of this report: “I think Aung San Suu Kyi made a mistake by taking on this duty… in the first place. She has concluded that the project should continue. Her assumption is that if we disallow this company its project then international investors will not trust Burma in future. But this conclusion is only concerned with the prestige of Burmese state. The people cannot accept this. And they are asking for an apology for the use of the bomb. They say there must be someone who gave the order. But Aung San Suu Kyi said that nobody can be said to be responsible, and the situation was dealt with according to law. China has 36 other major projects lined up in Burma, along the Salween river and the Irrawaddy, as well as a major gas and oil pipeline for new access to the Indian Ocean. So in the coming years, if they continue to act like this, we have a problem. I have advised Aung San Suu Kyi that this matter is not settled. I do not think the project should go ahead yet. But she has agreed to it proceeding now. Because of this incident she has lost moral authority. Before, she was regarded like Ghandi or Mandela. She was so strong and she always worked for the people. But anyway, her political influence is still strong. Recently she visited Pihu division, went to the villages, and it was clear that the people there still love her.”
(READ MORE: Whitewashing the crackdown on Burmese protestors)
At the turn of the Burmese new year, as Aung San Suu Kyi continues to lead the NLD in the transition to democracy, she might do well to consider making two resolutions based on U Win Tin’s observations about Meikhtila and Letpadaung. One: do not trust a military government, even one disguised as a civilian government and making the right noises about democracy, and do not let them tar you with the brush that tars them. Two: remember that the rule of law, which you advocate for so vociferously, is based on respect for fundamental human rights, transparent actions of government, and the ability to hold government to account for human rights abuses.
More from this author…
In defence of the rule of law – Democratic Voice of Burma
Is Burma sliding back into censorship? – Free Speech Debate
About the author
Ellen Wiles is a British writer and barrister currently based in Burma where she has been advising on media law reform and rule of law, and researching literature and culture during censorship and transition. She tweets as @ellenwiles.