Min Zin: Let Lenin meet YouTube and set Burma free

Pavel Vondra
10. 3. 2008 18:40
Burmese pro-democracy activist shares his views
Min Zin
Min Zin | Foto: Ludvík Hradilek

Prague - Despite his young age, Min Zin can already be considered a veteran of pro-democracy struggle in his native Burma. He became involved in the movement at the age of 14, when he founded a nationwide high school student union.

By doing that he buried his parents´ hopes he would ever obtain a degree from a Burmese univeristy but at the same time he helped ressurect hopes of his nation to see the end of the hated military rule in the country.

Min Zin closely worked with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1989, he was forced into hiding. During this period he was dismissed from school and constantly chased by the military intelligence.

Following the 1996 December student demonstration he fled to the Thai-Burma border. Thereafter, he worked as a deputy editor for the exile magazine Irrawaddy.

Min Zin came to the United States in August 2001 as a visiting scholar at the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He later joined the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia.

Min Zin is a member of the Rudolf Vrba Jury at this year's One World Film Festival in Prague. He was also one of the speakers at last week's seminar titled Dissidents and Freedom, organized by the festival with the help of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Černínský Palace in Prague.

READ MORE: Havel sounds call for dissidents across world to unite

Today Min Zin was answering questions posed by the readers of Aktuálně.cz in an on-line interview:

Q: Would you recommend travelling to Burma? I was there last year and saw group tours of Spanish people who cared about nothing else but buying souvenirs and it really made me sick.

Bagan is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its ancient pagodas and prefect sunsets attract a lot of tourists
Bagan is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its ancient pagodas and prefect sunsets attract a lot of tourists | Foto: Pavel Vondra

Min Zin writes: The opposition movement in Burma calls for travel boycott, not because they don't like travelling per se, but because military uses forced labor for building tourist infrastructure and etc. But to me, I don't mind individual travelling or responsible touring so long as you try your best not to spend money for military owned big hotels and other facilities. (It is hard but you can find some ways to do so).

I may have more reservation or reluctance for institution or groups tour because military can exploit it not only for financial reasons but also for public relation reasons by citing these big tour groups.

Q: Aren't you afraid of the possible ethnic violence and civil war in case of the current regime's fall? 

Min Zin writes: Well, Burma has been already described as a failing or failed state. Civil war has been there for 50 years. The longest and being forgotten one! Forced labor, child soldier, human rights violations, severe violence in ethnic areas, about 2,000 political prisoners, corruption, humanitarian crisis, etc - you name it.

The country ranks at the bottom in all these categories - check the reports of UN, AI, HRW, RSF, CPJ, Freedom House, Transparency International, EU, US State Dept, etc. Check also the annual Failed State Index of Foreign Policy magazine for reference. I think it is not even time to rank Burma in failed state category, it is now time to act and stop more bloodshed and violence.

Q: What is your worst experience from Burma? Have you ever witnessed torture, rape or killing of civilians which the Burmese military are often accused of?

Min Zin writes: I saw several killings (shooting events) in front of my very eyes when I took part in the public protests in August 1988 (08-08-88 Movement.) I was then a high school student of 14 years old. Then I have known many of my colleagues being tortured in prison (including my siblings) and died in prison (my uncle, close colleagues, childhood friends and etc). When arrived at the Thai - Burma border where I met many ethnic women who suffered from military's abuses including rape. These are well documented as well.

Q: How do people in Burma perceive Aung San Suu Kyi? Do they know her at all?

Min Zin writes: Of course, ASSK is the only hope for Burma if the country needs to proceed the transition. Let alone the people from the heartland who admire her father as a hero from the struggle for independence, but more importantly the ethnic minority groups, who fight for autonomy for 50 years, support her. Even ordinary soldiers supported her. When you look at 1990 elections results, military districts voted for her party. She has been perceived as the one who rally the whole country for reconciliation and nation-building.

Q: Can the current negotiations between opposition and government lead to anything?

Min Zin writes: There is no negotiation going on between the regime and opposition. They staged a few meetings with ASSK, in the wake of Saffron Revolution (protests) in September last year, in order to defuse international pressure. Now things go back to square one. They have excluded opposition led by ASSK once and for all from future elections and political process. That's where the real contention lies for now.

Min Zin sitting next to ex-president Václav Havel at a seminar Dissidents and Freedom held at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Min Zin sitting next to ex-president Václav Havel at a seminar Dissidents and Freedom held at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs | Foto: Naďa Straková

Q: Good afternoon, I would like to know your opinion on how the current regime could be changed into a democratic one. Is there a way that world can help you with this? And do you agree with the guerilla war against the regime?

Min Zin writes: I don't think the violent resistance will help the situation in Burma. But coordinated international pressure will help the situation. In this regard, it is important to get China to play responsibly in Burma issue. The US and EU can't outsource Burma problem to China, which itself is authoritarian country. But the West must push China to do more on Burma.

At the same time, civil-disobedient and civil society movement inside the country will make things different. But it is hard that "People Power" will defeat the united military, which is still willing to kill its own citizens. So encouraging the emergence of moderates within the ruling military is another thing to consider. In any case, (domestic as well as international) public actions are always needed to make change faster in Burma.

Q: Do you have relatives in Burma? Are you in touch with them? If so, how do you stay in touch, if it's not a secret? How are they doing?

Min Zin writes: Yes, I have two brothers and one sister in Burma. Unfortunately, my eldest brother Thet Zin was arrested by military regime in Feb 15, 2008. He is the editor of a weekly journal in Burma. His office was raided for 3 times in a week. He was tortured during interrogation. Now he is being charged with possession of illegal materials. It means when they raided his office, the human rights report of UN Human Right Envoy to Burma was confiscated by military. Having a HR report is illegal in Burma.

He said to his wife that he might likely to face minimum 10 years imprisonment for this charge. He is a former political prisoner too. He was arrested in 1988 student protests. You can google the arrest of my brother and the case. US president also entioned his name in his recent public statement. The Amnesty Ineternational, HRW and etc also highlighted on his case. I fact, almost every members of my family got arrested in past 20 years for their non-violent political involvement.

Q: Do you believe that (UN special envoy for Myanmar Ibrahim) Gambari's visits can force the Burmese government to actually do something? Wouldn't it be better to put pressure on China, India or ASEAN?

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari and Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit in Burma in the fall last year
UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari and Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit in Burma in the fall last year | Foto: Reuters

Min Zin writes: No. Gambari's mission is failure. Why? His mandate is basically coming from the UN General Assembly. Not from UN Security Council. So he doesn't have enforcement capacity. His mission is always at the mercy of Burmese regime and its key ally China. Unless his mission was strengthened by UNSC, he will be toothless. In order to get UNSC's official backing, the West needs to work on China. 

Without China's coercive persuasion, junta will not make any positive move. But diplomacy alone will not work in pushing China. International public action is needed, especially Olympic is approaching and China has significant sensitivity to its image. For the time being, I don't see any strong/persistent or coordinated efforts in diplomacy and public actions regarding pressing China for acceptable Burmese political transition.

Q: Can I ask you for your opinion about the upcoming elections (in Burma)?  And what do you think about Burmese government refusing to invite UN monitors for the ballot?

Q: Min Zin writes: Burmese junta rejected all proposals/suggestions made by UN - 1. To form constitutional review commission to make sure inclusive political process, 2. To form poverty alleviation commission to lessen the humanitarian and economic crisis, 3- (as the regime reused the first two, UN proposed the last one) to allow UN monitor. But the regime rejected all. They excuse that international observers will violate sovereignty. But it is absurd. Instead, the acceptance of international observers will make its standing strong, not weaken in terms o sovereignty.

Burmese soldiers during last September's violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon. Various sources put the number of victims of the crackdown between thirty and two hundred
Burmese soldiers during last September's violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon. Various sources put the number of victims of the crackdown between thirty and two hundred | Foto: Reuters

The constitutional referendum will not be free and fair, and the new election will not be inclusive as Aung san Suu Kyi and the opposition activists will be not allowed to contest. The so-called political roadmap the junta is now implementing is not roadmap to democracy (even not to initial political transition) but to slavery because constitution allow military to stay above the law (e.g. military chief has right to take power legally if he thinks the country is under emergency situation. it means he has rights to stage coup legally.)

Q: Hello, did you see the latest Rambo movie, where the title hero is fighting the Burmese soldiers? What do you think about the movie? I wish you good luck.

Min Zin writes: Yes, I watched the movie. This movie raised considerable level of awareness in the world. But I don't think I am for the Rambo-typed fight. The opposition movement in Burma led by Aung San Suu Kyi is not calling for any violent actions domestically or from international community. They don't even call for the regime change. What they always call for (especially more clear in he Buddhist monks-led protests in last year) is national reconciliation. They call for a meaningful political dialogue in which the democratic opposition, ethnic minority groups and military will sit together for talk and negotiate for the compromise. The opposition always say that military is part of the problem as well as must be part of the solution. We need smooth political transition in Burma.

Road from Rangoon to Beijing is a bloody one, activists point out
Road from Rangoon to Beijing is a bloody one, activists point out | Foto: Pavel Vondra

Q: Were you disappointed by the decision of IOC which granted Beijing the right to host this year's Olympic Games? If I'm not mistaken, Beijing is the closest ally the Burmese junta has. Do you believe that the free world should boycot the games, as some activists suggest?

Min Zin writes: Some activists have talked about boycott, but most realize this is not possible as you know that US President is even going to join the Beijing Olympics. But what many of Burmese democracy activists inside and abroad are now calling for is at least you can pledge not to view the opening ceremony of the game on the TV and not buying Olympic merchandise etc. as a demonstration of protest on part of free world against Chinese communist government who supported the regimes in Burma, Sudan and other dictatorial countries.

Burmese activists are now collecting at least 1 millions pledge from the world to make such pledge. Anyway, we will series of democracy and human rights and environmental related protests organized by international advocates and local people and media coverage in this multi-media world. As one journalist said, this Olympic Game is where Lenin will meet YouTube.

 

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