Prior to completing his university education, Aung Zaw was imprisoned for his involvement in Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy protests. Shortly after, he relcoated to Thailand and began collecting information for international human rights and media organizations. He is the founder and editor of The Irrawaddy news organization, the winner of numerous international journalism awards, and author of The Face of Resistance: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Fight for Freedom (2013, Silkworm Books).
In this interview conducted by Alec Scott for Burma Study Center, Aung Zaw speaks about the state of democratization in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi and the 2015 elections, ethnic issues, and the country’s media.
In your book, you write that Burma’s transition to democracy could be revoked at any time. Do you still believe that to be true?
It is still too fragile inside the country. What is interesting to me is the military. They are still very intrusive, they are everywhere. And I think the morals of people and their attitudes are different. I feel so sad when I recall memories of my childhood, student life, and our dreams of seeing Burma become a country full of optimism and peace and being respected. Peoples’ aspirations have changed a lot. Sadly, there has been a very systematic way of destroying the society. People don’t care anymore about the values. I think the military is happy with that, the decay in society. We have seen backsliding on progress in the country lately, as well as the rise of extreme anti-Muslim nationalism, but there is very little resistance on the part of the public.
The 2010 elections seemed to legitimize the ruling class in Burma. Do you think the elections were intended for anything more than maintaining the status quo?
I think the 2010 election was a joke. It was a joke. It was a hopeless year. Something happened in 2010 because the Western world was expecting something. The West in return also promised something, which was, “If you open up, if you change, even if you cheat in the elections, if you take off the uniforms and wear the civilian clothes, we will still come with aid and we will recognize you.” Even though the election was unsurprisingly fixed, the West had no problem with that. Obama, those in the West, they knew that the Burmese would make concessions. Those concessions started in 2011 in a very carefully calibrated style. The Myitsone Dam suspension, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of political prisoners, reaching out to the opposition ethnic groups.
It would be very interesting if the international community and the Western governments who want to believe and romanticize the changes in the country actually had the interest and capacity to listen to the common people in Burma. They don’t believe in this ‘new government’ or reforms at all, even now. They absolutely have no trust in this government. Lives in Burma remain unchanged — my friends, colleagues, and those living in the countryside are still living in the same conditions. I think the Western ambassadors and aid agencies are fooling themselves in a very disgusting way.
How do you interpret the President’s suspension of the Myitsone Dam project?
Myitsone was a signal to the West that there could be concessions and opportunities for Western companies in exchange for recognition. The rest are still Chinese projects, and the Chinese will not give Burma easily to the West.
What is interesting about Myitsone is that there was no real public pressure. The pressure was only on Facebook and the social media. Only small protests, but no big public gatherings prior to the decision. I think Thein Sein and his people were very clever at taking the issue that they knew would gain public and international support. Then [U.S. Secretary of State] Clinton’s visit opened the flood gates [to Western investment and international aid]. I think the Burma team in Washington misread the whole thing, or maybe misreads Burma completely. For them it is about China. It is not about Burma. Having access to Burma is a strategic decision.
You have been critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to have the 2008 Constitution amended to enable her to run for the presidency in 2015. Can you explain your dissatisfactions with her recent actions?
I think the regime has very cleverly used Aung San Suu Kyi’s political legitimacy to advance the goal of legitimizing its own rule, and she has allowed it. My personal opinion is she should stop talking about becoming president. She will never become president in Burma. Period. If that is her aim, then forget about it. I think she should be aiming higher than that. Because she has been seen as an icon, I think she should utilize herself as an icon for change and democracy. If she doesn’t believe in this constitution, she doesn’t have to get involved. She should stay away from it.
Now the problem is that she is in the system. The system is flawed, and she’s one of the people sitting in Parliament. Looking at the last three years, I think it would have been better if she had stayed out of it. She has compromised on so many issues, but the Letpadaung Mine is one of the biggest issues.
Honestly, I don’t think she is born to be a politician, and I don’t think she understands the issues very well. With the Letpadaung Mine controversy she allowed herself to rescue the government and China. She thought if she did a favor for them, they would change the constitution for her and more concessions would come. And that’s not the case. The government has consolidated and capitalized on this moment for their own protection, very cleverly and very shrewdly, while she has only lost legitimacy and trust.
What are you optimistic about these days in terms of the direction of the country?
I think Burma’s grassroots-level movements, mobilizations of the youth, and the radical movements are a cause for hope. Linking up the mainland and the ethnic areas is so important. I agree that the genie is out of the bottle. Thanks to communication tools, this is a great time to push for change and not just sing the song along with the government. People know the regime’s true colors. They want to give [the President] the benefit of the doubt and ride the wave of the honeymoon period. But there is no more honeymoon period.
You mentioned the rise of anti-Muslim nationalism in Burma. Could you speak a bit more about that?
The Rohingya, whether they are an indigenous ethnic group belonging
to Burma or not, it doesn’t matter; they are human beings. They may not
be an ethnic minority from Burma, they may have come here from
Bangladesh, but the way that Burma has treated them, it is awful.
Looking at Wirathu, the monk [and leader of the ‘969’ anti-Muslim movement], I think it is very worrying for all of us, because he seems to have received a blessing from the government to continue inciting hatred and violence.
What is your evaluation of the quality of the press inside Burma today?
The media is responsible for a lot of the violence in Burma. The large media groups are owned by a lot of vested interests, a lot of cronies and the military. Several news organizations are actually owned by either the military or the [ruling political party] USDP. Where are the independent media organizations in Burma? They are very small.
I think media is so important in Burma now because it’s only a very informal education that people in Burma can receive. But most of the media inside the country is not responsible — by responsible I do not mean in the way that the government or Aung San Suu Kyi would describe. Press responsibility means that we dare to criticize those in power, we dare to question their accountability and leadership. It doesn’t matter if you are Thein Sein or Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t think she is a freedom fighter for press freedom in Burma, let alone Thein Sein or the Ministry of Information.
There have been slight changes in the attitudes of older media networks, but they are understandably worried about money and money politics, and still the Press Scrutiny Board. Ethnic issues have been reported a bit more recently, but journalists are scared to write about the bigger issues. What are the underlying problems? What are the connections? This is where the media in Burma has not been doing their job.
What do you think the role of the news media could be in connecting people in ethnic areas with the central, Burman-majority areas of the country?
I think ethnic media is very important, but it has been quite weak. We’ve got to promote it, and we have to connect the mainstream and ethnic media, because a lot of media groups in Rangoon, I think they do care, but they don’t know about what is going on in ethnic states. I think one of the good things about the exile media is they have played a huge role over the last twenty years highlighting the plight of the ethnic struggles. That’s what we have done: linking not only ethnic issues, but also Burma and Southeast Asia, and Burma and the West.
Do you think there could be a stronger connection between young journalists in ethnic areas and the central media groups?
I think journalism is very new in the ethnic areas. For example, for the Karen, it is too new. Probably we [The Irrawaddy] are the ones who have produced a few outstanding ethnic reporters. But I think it will get better and better.
The Karen or Shan or Kachin, they don’t dare to write about problems in their own states among their own people. They can write about the fighting between the Burmese government and the Kachin, in favour of the Kachin Independence Army. But if you talk about other problems, such as environmental and drug issues, and their involvement, they don’t want to. It is also because of kinship, and they do not want to upset their leadership.