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August 18th, 2009
Eyes of the Storm
Aaron Brown Interview: Maureen Aung-Thwin

Maureen Aung-Thwin is the director of the Open Society Institute’s Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative. She spoke with WIDE ANGLE host Aaron Brown about Burmese politics.

AARON BROWN:
Is it Burma or is it Myanmar to you?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, for me it’s Burma because Burmese people did not vote to change their name to Myanmar. It was an illegitimate regime that decided to change the name. But it’s not really changing the name. You know, it’s smoke and mirrors, because it means the same thing in Burmese.

AARON BROWN:
Myanmar . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, Bamache or Myamache. You would say Burma country or Myanmar country. Bamache or Myamache. It’s interchangeable. The Bank of Myanmar. The Bank of Burma. You know, it’s just in English. It’s like asking all the English speakers to call Germany Deutschland by fiat.

AARON BROWN:
If I was walking down the street in Rangoon and walked up to a cab driver, a tailor, a schoolteacher and said, “What’s the name of your country?” how…

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
In English?

AARON BROWN:
. . . how would he or she answer that question?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
They might say either/or, actually. Because, you know, you’re sort of coerced into using Myanmar. You’re not allowed to write to Burma and put Burma on your envelope. You have to say Myanmar in English. So everything’s been renamed. You know, everything is Myanmar, Myanmar, Myanmar. To the point that it’s almost ludicrous. They don’t have a word that compares to Burmese. Okay? Burma. Burmese live in Burma. So some people have made up Myanmarese. I mean if that’s not the craziest made up name. Myanmarese? And so some of the Burmese officials call it Myanmars. Well, there’s no such thing. It’s all made up. You know, ’cause there was no English word, Myanmar. So we are Myanmarese if we do please!

AARON BROWN:
Just let me ask this one more slightly different way. If I walk up to that teacher or tailor or cab driver and say, “When in the quiet of your thoughts, not what you say out loud, not what can get you in trouble, okay, but just in the quiet of your thoughts, where do you live? What is your country?” How do they answer that question? In the quiet of their thoughts?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Again, I think it would be quite natural to think both, but probably more Burma, because the national anthem has that word in it also. You see? Yeah. So there’re some things that as far as I know they haven’t changed those things. I mean we’re talking about our people and, you know, and they refer to themselves as Burma.

AARON BROWN:
But that’s a pretty good way to gauge where people are on this question. What they quietly say, you know, how they think of themselves, to me. It is just a small way to make a larger political statement. Is that fair?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
For . . .

AARON BROWN:
You?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . for me?

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah, but, you know, I’m not that rigid because we engage with all sorts of people. And when I’m in different company and I know that they’re going to freak out because I say Burma, I will say Burma/Myanmar or I’ll say Myanmar, just not to add to the tension.

AARON BROWN:
Seriously, who would freak out?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
ASEAN diplomats, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Asian diplomats. Politicians. Policy makers. Supporters of the Burmese regime. There are some Western scholars also.

AARON BROWN:
Really?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Oh yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s . . .

AARON BROWN:
It’s just . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . it become a lot more polarizing than it needs to be. You know the New York Times changed and calls it Myanmar, right?

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
And I happen to know why they did that.

AARON BROWN:
And why did they do that?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I won’t tell you all the details, but it’s . . .

AARON BROWN:
But just tell me the really juicy details…

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
A friend of the then editor, a Burmese friend, was called and asked what’s correct. Is Myanmar incorrect? And the answer was, “No.” Well, it’s not incorrect because, as I said, in Burmese, you know, you can say Jamat– Ba– Bama or Myanmar. It’s okay. It’s the same thing. So they went with it. But then, you know, you can’t change it. Right? It looks sort of funny. The United Nations has to call it Myanmar because they recognize what they call the de facto government. And the de facto is the regime.

AARON BROWN:
We began the hour talking about the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi that just ended. The verdict. The sentencing, all of that. Would it have been more surprising, I mean, was there anything surprising about the outcome or was her conviction, her sentencing, her being forced to remain in house detention, what was expected and pre-ordained?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
It would have been more than shocking. You know, you have to put yourself in their shoes. The junta’s shoes. I like to say they’re between a junta and a hard place because they got themselves into this dilemma. They can’t release her, even if they wanted to. They would have gotten probably the legitimacy even that they desire, you know, had they freed her.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
But they can’t because the elections are coming up. They can’t risk having, you know, everybody rallying around her party, for example.

AARON BROWN:
When you say everybody, you mean people within the country?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah, within the country. Yeah. But they would have gotten a lot of kudos all over the world. I mean, I don’t know. They could have maybe acquitted her and then, you know, say, “You’re freed but for the next few months, we will have talks in private,” or something. I mean, they could have done a lot of things.

AARON BROWN:
I mean there are a number of interesting things to me about sort of how this all played out. There was more pressure on the junta this time, it seemed to me, than there have been over a long time. Even the Chinese, ironically, were talking about releasing political prisoners in Burma. What does that tell you that there seems to be this additional pressure this time?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, a couple of things. I hate to be cynical but, you know, when something dramatic like this trial comes up, it is not competing with hugely important other world news. You know, there’s a lot more attention given to small Burma. And that’s why, like when the monks were protesting, that got a lot more coverage and people sort of remembered what was happening. So I think it’s only two years since that amazing footage that the film shows with the monks marching. So I think it sort of jolted people up. You know, “Oh my god. Yes.” And everybody wants to somehow, you know, help her. To help Aung San Suu Kyi be released. And they’re more aware of political prisoners because there’s a larger number of them now since the monk protests. And before the monk protests, you may not remember, there were some civilian protests of a group called the ‘88 Generation. And they’re all locked up now too.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So there a lot more political prisoners now than before.

AARON BROWN:
But that doesn’t explain to me, at least, so try me again. Help me understand. I mean, China is always important in understanding why things play out the way they play out in lots of places in the world, because if the Chinese were to put pressure, for example, on the junta, that more so than even the Americans, might have a big impact. Fair?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes, fair. But America actually has also very large role to play. For some reason, the Burmese really, they crave the approval of America and Americans and the government. It sounds bizarre but they do.

AARON BROWN:
But they don’t change?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, they . . .

ARON BROWN:
So they may not, they don’t, crave it that much because they have been prior to the American government for a long time now. And they just kind of keep doing what they do.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, they got themselves in that fix. They crave their approval but they have no choice now. They have to go with who has, say, recognized them — as in China — and who is engaging with them. You know? Investing, well, exploiting the country. But, you know, making their economy, buying their wood. You know, all the trees are being chopped down. But what I mean by America is, you know, you talk to the average person in Burma, very often they will say, “We wish that we were actually in with America rather than –.” They would rather have an alternative to being close to China. And I think that probably goes for some of the regime.

AARON BROWN:
So they could make that happen overnight?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I, well, I’m hoping that there’s some back channel stuff going on.

AARON BROWN:
Any reason to believe there is?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah. But I can’t tell you. I’d have to kill you.

AARON BROWN:
You can’t tell me, but the New York Times with . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No, I did. I did tell you. I said the editor at that time. Just don’t want to name names.

AARON BROWN:
Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged not too far back that policy to this point, American policy, doesn’t seem to have moved the needle very much. Why continue a sanctions program that doesn’t seem to be moving the needle very much?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, you can’t move anything, even if it’s, you know, some people think it’s not moving it very much. I think that there are two types of sanctions. There’s the general sanctions — no new investment. Then there’s the targeted financial sanctions going after the small group of cronies, right? And their businesses, and their ability to travel, to change money. Those are working. Those need to be honed in and names added and monitored. Right? So the thing, the weird sort of a dilemma — we would like to review and maybe have another option. But, until then, you can’t reward them for not doing anything or for not moving their stance. You know, like not freeing political prisoners. You could start sort of a negotiating thing. You do this, we’ll do that. See, I would keep then the financial sanctions, the ones that really hurt, ’til the very last moment. I would keep that. You always need some kind of leverage.

AARON BROWN:
There is a Catch 22 in this. It’s not just with Burma. We see this, to some degree, as also true with the North Koreans. To some degree true with the Iranians. To some degree true with lots of countries. On the one hand you don’t wanna give them the legitimacy that comes with a negotiation, a meeting, a whatever the word is. On the other hand, how do engage them without that? It just strikes me as a wall around which neither side can penetrate, even if they want to.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
You can engage. You can engage them in ways that does not benefit directly the elites, the cronies, the privileged, the, you know, the top generals. I would, if I were king of the United States, right, I would open up some kind of exchanges, cultural exchanges. You know? So under the sanctions there are things you can do. You know, there’s Fulbright program going both ways . . .

AARON BROWN:
Oh yeah . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . now. So I would really increase that. I would put more money into bringing more Burmese here, especially artists and writers. And sending Americans there. Do you remember the very old U.S.I.S, used to be called the United States Information Service?

AARON BROWN:
Yes.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
That was America’s way of showing the best of America. You know, that in Rangoon before the military came, Martha Graham came. Benny Goodman came. I think Dizzie Gillespie probably came. I know he went to Sri Lanka so he must have stopped — Rangoon was the major hub. You know, Pan Am flew there. It was the Asian hub for Pan Am. You know, people have forgotten that. So I mean there are things that you can do, that keeps, you know, some kind of engagement going with intellectuals, with artists.

AARON BROWN:
Maybe I’m wrong about this. You’ll straighten me out. I have a real sense that the average Burmese is anti-American?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No. Average Burmese, as I said . . .

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . you know, this is my theory. They really admire Americans and America. When, you know, the ‘88 uprising? That nationwide uprising?

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
They were waiting for the 7th Fleet to come and rescue them from the regime. I don’t know if you remember that. The 7th Fleet, or a couple of ships, were floating around sort of just showing whatever they showed — the Navy showed. Right? And the Burmese were thrilled. They were so thrilled that America was coming to their rescue. Of course, it doesn’t happen that way. You know?

AARON BROWN:
I mean the problem in the end, isn’t it, is that you have a relatively small group of people who have all of the power? They are ruthless. They are completely in control and we haven’t figured out, we meaning not just the American — the Europeans, most of the world — has not figured out how to move them at all. And in some respects, the opposite is true. That the more pressure that gets applied, the more insular they become.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, they may be, but if you talk to released political prisoners, talk to Burmese people, again, there are public intellectuals, there are people you can just phone and call and talk to or they travel out. They will say, “We need you to stand up for us.” The total censorship. They can’t speak . . .

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . for what’s happening. They can’t speak for their sufferings. So they need that. As far as the total power, yes, they have total power and they can shoot you if they don’t, you know, they don’t like what you’re doing or put you in jail. But, you know, 50 million people is a huge lot of people to be like watching all the time. I would say it’s a really terrible job to be a dictatorship in the 21st century with the Internet and, you know, it’s there. And you can’t keep out the world like you used to.

AARON BROWN:
It’s very hard.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
It’s very hard.

AARON BROWN:
But you know what’s worse than being a dictator in the 21st century is being the subject of a dictator in the 21st century. They still have the power. And what, I guess what I’m trying to get at here and what I’m trying to understand, and I suppose help viewers understand, is what really are the policy options for the American government if what we have done has not been successful. What are the policy options left?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, one thing is it’s hard to measure anything, so success, failure. You know, how have even the tough financial sanctions resonated inside? You know, you can’t collect data. So I wouldn’t call it total failure because the monks, after all, think of the monks and the ‘88 Generation that are locked up. You know, there is still bravery there. There’s still people willing to stand. And why, and what inspires them, you know? And its also the world watching, the world knowing and being behind them, I think. I mean there’s a psychological thing to it too. So you can’t just say it’s total failure. However, though, with the options that are open, you have to be very creative. I would have many channels. I would do the governmental channel. You know, the back channels through your trading partners. Through whatever clout you have with China, say. But the thing is America doesn’t wanna use up its credit with China, you know? They might wanna use it for somewhere else. You know Burma really, as much as it gets in the news sometimes, it’s not high on the American agenda. But it’s still a very powerful country that the rest of the world is waiting to lead them into other options. In fact I talked to some people in other governments. They say, “We’re just waiting. We have no policy. We’re waiting for the American review to see what happens.”

AARON BROWN:
I mean, I think you make a great and sad point here which is, on the scale of countries and problems, that Burma doesn’t rank quite high enough. And, you know, if you wanna pressure the Chinese in Darfur, you wanna pressure the Chinese on North Korea, you can only pressure them so many times in so many ways, and Burma doesn’t rank high enough unless there is this horrible moment of a cyclone where the government does nothing or the monks march and get shot or imprisoned — so how do you stay optimistic?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, it’s difficult, but if I didn’t stay optimistic, I couldn’t even do my job. Basically I have faith in the Burmese people. The change has to come from inside. Right? The problem is the pace, you know? It’s why there’s so much patience and tolerance for this repression.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
But part of it is by the Burmese people.

AARON BROWN:
Okay.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I mean, it’s not just people who will take to the streets or not take to the streets. You know, you don’t blame them. They don’t wanna be shot, because they’ve seen how they clamp down. It’s also up to the elites. I mean, the generals, including the ranks, number two, three levels. And I’m optimistic because, again, my reading of recent news, things that have come out, indicate that the fissures that we’re all waiting for, because, you know, you’re looking to sort of a big military group that’s been around since 1962. Right? So they’re gonna have to break up or something. As long as they’ve been unified, and they’ve shown to the public that they’ve been unified, we’ve been waiting for little, you know, signs of fissures. And finally they’re coming. So that’s why I’m quite optimistic.

AARON BROWN:
And can you give me . . . I wanna believe that.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Sure, I’ll give you some examples.

AARON BROWN:
Give me a sense of how this younger group, or the next group, or somebody, is different from the people who they answer to today?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, the younger group, some of them have been more exposed. I don’t know if you’ll remember in 2004, the then prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, he was seen as the moderate general. The one who was pushing for talks with the opposition. He sort of orchestrated Aung San Suu Kyi’s first talks with the junta. And he may have overstepped. Who knows, right, who knows. But number one, supreme general, General Than Shwe decided, “Okay, that’s it. You’ve gone too far.” And Khin Nyunt sort of knew what was coming. He even told Rosalie, who was the special envoy of the Secretary General. He said to him, soon before he was arrested, he said, “You know, you may have to come and sort of bail me out sometime.” I mean, he seemed to know that something was — you know, because yeah, it’s a dictatorship. You can’t trust anybody, right? So they arrested him. He’s still under house arrest now. And he was the head of the military intelligence as well as prime minister. So they had to then round up all his people. A lot of his top lieutenants are in jail. We hear some rumors that some of them may be out, but he himself is still in house arrest. He’s not in jail, which is interesting. So going back to say, okay, so here’s quite, you know, a more moderate, more open person who actually had some college education. So maybe not so much into fortune-telling and everything is through numerology. You see? And, again, going back to fissures, we hear, and it makes sense because a lot of leaks are coming out now about secret memoranda and, you know, talks with the military and all that. Stuff that should be very confidential if you’re a dictatorship. It’s all out there. You know? On YouTube, everywhere. And they’re coming from these, hopefully, more enlightened or frustrated second, younger strata. And I think they’re frustrated not only because of the condition of the country, for example. They know how much they’re hated. They know that cracking down on monks was a terrible thing. I’m also, by the way, to add to the optimism, I know it doesn’t show up, but after they cracked down on the monks doesn’t mean they all disappointed or Buddhism disappointed. There’s a lot of internalized anguish there which I like to say that was the beginning of the end for the generals, you know, cracking down on the monks. These are highly revered…

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
This is a really religious country.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Spiritual and religious. This is not just going to church once a year, you know? You’re not even supposed to step on the shadow of a monk. And can you imagine touching, beating a monk up? Killing a monk? A lot of people are not gonna get over it, including soldiers.

AARON BROWN:
I want your optimism, because what I see are 50 million people who live in an almost complete absence of freedom of any sort. And within some considerable fear all the time. But what I see and what has always concerned me about the situation there is that the power elite has literally, physically separated itself from the country. They go out and build this capital out in the middle of nowhere, basically. And they hang out together and they talk to one another. And they don’t have really connections, it doesn’t seem, to the country. And I don’t know how you get to them. How you move them. How you punish them enough or reward them enough. I’m not sure which it is, quite honestly. And neither seems to have been particularly, well, effective.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
When you think of all the people in Burma who have something to do with the military, it’s not just a small part of the elite. The number of soldiers in the armed forces, everybody, you know, they claim to be about 400,000. Now you multiply — how many families that is?

AARON BROWN:
Sure.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right? And I have, you know, I’ve been in exile for a long time. I’ve got family both in the power structures and the insurgent structures and the military structures. You know, it’s 50 million, but there’s a sort of a smallish group, when you come down to who’s doing what or the urbanites — say Rangoon people. And almost everybody knows or has someone in the military in their family, married to someone in the family. But I might also say knows a monk, has somebody in the family or there’s a monk that the family has always revered, you see? It’s a complicated thing. So they’re not that isolated. And when something happens like the trauma over the monks, it resonates all through the country to a lot of people.

AARON BROWN:
The regime has this plan, that there will be elections in 2010. There is a constitution that is this sort of framework for these elections in 2010. Let me ask two questions about that. Will they happen? Will they matter?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Oh yeah, there’ll be an election.

AARON BROWN:
And they guarantee themselves 25 percent of . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I didn’t say free or fair.

AARON BROWN:
Right. And I didn’t feel the need to ask. Because no one really believes they’re gonna be free and fair.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, you know what? 1990 they thought that too. And the opposition won. So . . .

AARON BROWN:
That a good reason to, in fact, to believe that they won’t be free and fair.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah. Exactly. I agree with that. I totally agree with that.

AARON BROWN:
Because one of the things that these folks recognize is that history can in fact repeat itself.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
Might repeat itself, and they’re not gonna allow that to happen.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
It’s called lessons learned.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
So we’ll give them that. So to 2010 — do the elections change anything?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Some people think so. You know, here’s a point that even democracy supporters and all debate. Some think that, you know, political parties and opposition, should run. And try to change from within. Some think we should let the process go on and use that process for the space that that process brings. Like you’re allowed to go back home to vote. So well, you can go home and do other things, right? Various things. Use it for, you know, spreading community spirit. I mean, there are many sort of under the radar things you can do that you’re not allowed to normally. But because of elections they had to go through the motions of give the people a little bit more space.

AARON BROWN:
So even if the outcome of the election is . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Predetermined. Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
… sort of preordained and in that sense meaningless? The process itself offers an opportunity that should be taken advantage of?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Some people say that. Yes.

AARON BROWN:
Do you say that?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Some people say it. You know, I would leave it up to the individual inside. I don’t wanna take a stand on it because some people will say, “Oh, you’re pushing this rather than that.” I think everyone inside knows how to use the space or to boycott it. Someone to make a statement. It’s really up to them. And I think you’ll see the so-called opposition inside, meaning the various people who would like a regime change, will do different things. I think there will be some who will boycott it – - the elections — and not vote. And some will vote and hope for the best. And some will use that space to organize.

AARON BROWN:
And . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
But I don’t wanna promote one way or the other.

AARON BROWN:
I’m curious, could you just explain to me again why that is? I’m not sure I understood why you don’t wanna say, “From my perspective, the knowledge I have, the people I’ve talked to and the aspirations for the country that I have, I believe this is the best way to go here.” Why won’t you take the stand on that?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Because I’m not sure it’s the best way to go, to have a sham election that they’re gonna win. And . . .

AARON BROWN:
So boycott it.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . reinstate . . . yeah, but then I didn’t wanna say boycott it, you know what I mean?

AARON BROWN:
No.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, I . . .

AARON BROWN:
Actually, I don’t. I mean I’m trying to understand it . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Because . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . and I don’t.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . because it’s going to be a sham election.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
And it’s gonna consolidate the military regime for maybe many, many more years. Right? Maybe it legitimize them in the eyes of the neighbors. Anyway, the neighborhood in Asia, in the Asian region, because I know that, but also because I know that it’s gonna create the space. And also that tiny, slim chance that you never know; somebody might win something, you know, and they’re gonna let a lot of parties on. And some obscure party person winning some seat somewhere maybe could make a difference in some village somewhere. You see what I mean? So I don’t wanna say boycott because it’s gonna be a sham. It up to them. If I were inside, what would I do? Yeah, I’d probably boycott it. But I’m not inside.

AARON BROWN:
In listening to you I now think — tell me if I’m missing this — that we’re looking for like the Big Bang. For the big change. For that moment when the Berlin Wall comes down. But, what actually I hear you saying, is maybe what we can expect or hope for at this stage is incremental change — is a little change that leads to a little more change which leads to a little more change which ultimately leads to people living better, freer lives. Is that what you think?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes. It can’t be a huge bang change in Burma. There’s just no way. And I’m not sure everyone’s prepared. What you do with the 400,000 people working for the regime? What you do with this whole society and the institutions that they’ve destroyed? You can’t run a modern economy with a destroyed infrastructure. And I don’t mean roads and stuff. There’s that too. But banks and schools and hospitals for the general populous. Not for the military. They have their own nice little things of course. So it has to be incremental. Hopefully not too slow. My wish is that it would happen non-violently and it would be like a shared journey — the military aren’t gonna go away, for one thing. So it would be some of those forces joining in with the civilians towards a civilian government eventually. And this election, the current junta and General Than Shwe thinks that’s what he’s doing. You see?

AARON BROWN:
Do you believe that? That he . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Oh, absolutely not. I mean — oh, what he thinks that he’s doing?

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Whether in fact he’s doing that, that he . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I think . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . believes that this is an incremental movement towards…

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
. . . a democratic Burma?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
According to “disciplined democracy.” According to “Myanmar ethos” or whatever. I mean there’s a whole jargon about that. Than Shwe told Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary General who was there recently and who was not allowed to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, “Well, you know, the next time I see you, I’ll be a civilian.” So he’s got great hopes for himself, you know? But you have to remember that in the ’70s the first dictator, General Ne Win, he did the same thing in the ’70s. He took over in ‘62. Then they decided, “Oh gosh. We’re making a mess of this.” So they said, “Let’s do a new constitution. We will become a civilian government.” They had also elections and voted themselves in. And then basically took office. They took off their uniforms and put on sarongs. And suddenly everybody had to call them, “U.” You know, on U-Nu or U-Than.

AARON BROWN:
Right. Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah. So these guys are trying that in 2010 when the elections are.

AARON BROWN:
Do you see anywhere in the world a model of where there’s been an entrenched military junta in power for a long time and it has slowly eased its control? It’s given up its power. It’s transitioned to something else. Is there a model out there that we as people who pay attention and policy makers ought to look at and say, “You know, if we just kind of focus on that, we may have something here.”

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Possibly Indonesia. But, you know, Burma’s really unique. There’s no military that I can remember that was as entrenched or had killed civil society and had killed the institutions, the press. Even Indonesia, under General Suharto, there were civil society groups. Some of the banks were, I mean many of them were of course, you know, keeping them rich and all that. They had foreign aid. They had a lot of American investment, you know? But it was still a dictatorship. It was not as repressive — well, maybe some Indonesians would say yeah, quite oppressive. But, you know, I’m not counting how many people in jail or how quickly you can get there. Just talking about the space for the people. Look at China. China some people might call a Communist police state, right? That’s all it is. No, no longer?

AARON BROWN:
Well, are you asking me if . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
I’m calling it . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . I’d call it that?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN
. . . yeah. I’m . . .

AARON BROWN:
I’d absolutely . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . asking.

AARON BROWN:
. . . . call it that.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Okay. China delivers to its people a lot more freedoms than the Burmese regime does to theirs.

AARON BROWN:
Absolutely.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
You see? They have economic freedom. They can go to school where they want – - what, 30,000 are studying in the States.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Travel, all sorts of things.

AARON BROWN:
But . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
They even can sue the government.

AARON BROWN:
The Chinese seem to have figured out the . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
. . . the Communist Party seems to have figured out, and to some extent maybe the Chinese people have figured out that you prioritize in life. And it seems to me the bargain that the Chinese have made is that there are certain things more important than a free press or multiple candidates, or however you wanna define political freedom. And the economic engine that is China has used incredible pressure on the Chinese political process. I’m not sure that Burma can pull that off.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Oh, no, Burma can’t pull it off because for one thing you have this small group of generals who all, at least number one, it seems almost to be anti-education. This is absurd. This is a thing that we’ve never seen in the world before. You know, the Soviet Union, they didn’t destroy education. In fact, they had lots of doctors and professionals. And they all went to school for free. Burma’s doing the opposite. So they have no skilled people to run a modern state. You see? And the Chinese revere education. And I have to say, the Burmese revere education. You know, it used to be one of the most literate countries in the entire world. I’m talking about close to 100 percent literacy rate. Because, thanks to the monks, even poor people could get free education and learn how to read or write. And that’s dropped. I mean, I don’t know what the percentage is now. It’s still pretty high, considering. But they’ve gone out of their way to, well, shutdown universities or, you know, not let them run as universities should. In other words, they love distance education so that students are always trouble will not be, you know, gathering on a campus.

AARON BROWN:
This is . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So it’s . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . this is what the most authoritarian regimes in the world do. It’s what the North Koreans do. It’s what in some respects the Iranians do, though it’s more complicated . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
North Korea actually may be worse than Burma, I have to say. In their . . .

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, I think . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

ARON BROWN:
. . . actually it is.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
I mean it’s . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, it is.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. And it is much more closed . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah. Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
. . . it’s a weird thing. You know, you start to say, “Well, this is evil,” but that’s actually worse. I mean . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Neither is something we ought to aspire to in life. I think you were earlier king of the United States. I’m going to downgrade you to Secretary of State for a bit. You’re now the Secretary of State and you have the President’s ear and you go to him and you say, “Mr. President. I figured out Burma. Here’s the first step. This is how America should behave towards Burma. It’s a little different than we have been. Here’s what we should do.” What is it?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
If I were the Secretary of State?

AARON BROWN:
You are.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Well, I don’t tell you in front of public television. That’s the problem, though. It would have to be, I think, something as I said, back channel. Major back channel. I think that’s what the first step should be.

AARON BROWN:
And . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
You can’t publicly do something and reward them. So, I mean, you know, you’re sort of in a fix.

AARON BROWN:
So, all right. Can . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right?

AARON BROWN:
I’m not giving up on this yet.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Okay.

AARON BROWN:
You say, “Mr. President, we need to send so and so to such and such a place to meet with someone from the junta and have a chat?”

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Absolutely. Yes, yeah, you could send Bill Clinton. They’d be very thrilled probably.

AARON BROWN:
But doesn’t that reward them?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Not to have a chat. No. And also to have a chat privately is what I’m talking about. I mean North Korea wanted the pictures on the front cover. I wouldn’t…

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . . do a photo op. No, I’m talking about serious, serious dealing. Yeah. And if America could do it, maybe take off some of the, well, you know, not the top one. If can get some of them away. Pry them out. Try it with some of the ones who might be the change makers.

AARON BROWN:
So you’re trying to figure out who might . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
. . . be receptive . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yes. Right.

AARON BROWN:
. . . to loosening the grip and . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
. . . and start working those people?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right. Because you’ll find out that they’re sort of tired. It’s a full-time job. Thankless job, as I say, running a dictatorship.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah, everybody hates you. And you used to be the great, you know, the liberating army. Now people will shun you on the busses. They won’t sit next to you. They stare — you know, terrible stuff. So they’re not happy campers, a lot of them.

AARON BROWN:
I’m not sure the generals are getting on the bus. I’m not sure the colonels are getting on the bus. I’m serious here. Maybe I just don’t get this, but my sense of the…

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
The soldiers.

AARON BROWN:
. . . the machine . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Soldiers ride the busses.

AARON BROWN:
Absolutely.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
The regime itself is incredibly paranoid and incredibly isolated. And we don’t know a lot. And that’s what makes all of this so much harder. Is the harder we push, the more paranoid they get. And if we stop pushing then they . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Then they take advantage of it.

AARON BROWN:
They take advantage of it.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
You see there’s the…

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No, I think you . . .

AARON BROWN:
And so . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
. . . it’s just one bad choice after another.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
There are very few options. But the thing is you can’t let go of pushing or speaking out just because it’s the new thing to, you know, try something else. You have to keep that up. At the same time, you’ve got to start opening other channels. Try different things. But, again, not in public. You also could have proxies. Try to get some of your, you know, your allies to do more. The ASEAN countries, for example. I don’t know. China maybe even. My sense of China is that they believe some of that Burmese propaganda. The Chinese officials and academics. You know? From my small observation point, not as Secretary of State but as just working for a foundation, I have sensed that.

AARON BROWN:
I gave you such a nice promotion . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
You did. I preferred being King of America. But they only know one reality. They don’t know, you know, the reports by the refugees. By the people who are being abused. The ethnic nationalities who are being brutalized. You know, there are several thousand villages that are razed and there are more than in Darfur. And after a while your eyes glaze over. The world just gets refugee fatigue. It’s pretty terrible stuff that’s going on in large swaths of Burma that nobody’s able to penetrate. You know?

AARON BROWN:
Forgive me . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . for the cynicism here.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Go ahead.

AARON BROWN:
But I actually believe that the Chinese care about China. That’s it. And if they can get the lumber out of Burma, or whatever natural resources that are available to them because they have an almost insatiable need for natural resources of all sort, they don’t really care who’s in charge. And they could care less the conditions that people are living in.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
However, the Chinese, historically, and no less now, are very concerned with instability.

AARON BROWN:
Absolutely.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
And instability on their borders. I’m talking beyond China.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Of course they don’t want instability inside their country. They certainly don’t want instability at their borders.

AARON BROWN:
It makes them really nervous.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Makes them very nervous. And guess where all their problems…

AARON BROWN:
. . . North Korea is the same thing. They don’t wanna see that.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
The southern border with Burma. Where do you think all the trans-national problems, the diseases, the trafficking, you know, the corruption — everything is coming from there. And the Chinese who, say, are HIV/AIDS-positive or drug addict, guess what? They all live on the southern flank.

AARON BROWN:
I mean it’s an odd thing to me that we’re eight weeks or so into this season of programs. And it’s not true of every one of them, but about half of them it seems like it all comes back to somehow you have to convince China that it’s in their interests to do something. Whether it’s North Korea,, that it’s in China’s interest. Or whether in Africa, it’s in China’s interest. Burma. It’s in China’s interest. Nobody’s quite figured out . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
What?

AARON BROWN:
. . . how to do that yet. You know?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
But it’s doing. Meaning, I think, China’s evolving. China is not the same China that was there from, you know, from Tiananmen days. Different China, you know? It’s post-Olympics, different China. You know, it’s got image now. It’s an international superstar. Right?

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, it’s an important . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . it’s America’s banker. You know? Their diplomats speak several languages. They speak the language of the place they’re going. Smart, educated . . .

AARON BROWN:
Couldn’t agree more.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
You know, suave people. So, you know, they’ve joined the world. And it comes with responsibility. So they can’t forever keep defending and exploiting. That’s a different manner. You know? Poor . . .

AARON BROWN:
Well . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . poor . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . if they keep exploiting . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Poor rich . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . them until . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . Burma.

AARON BROWN:
. . . until he runs out. And no more trees to cut down.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah, but that will affect their own ecosystem.

AARON BROWN:
Right. Ten years from now you think we’ll be having roughly the same conversation?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No. I’ll definitely be Secretary of State. No, I’m just joking. No, I really do predict — it’s hard to prove it — but I think the crushing of the monks two years ago was the beginning of the end in some way. In some way. You know we’ve talked to some of the monks who participated in those protests who are in exile and they tell — and this is just a few examples. They talk about soldiers coming to them totally traumatized. You know, “Gosh, am I gonna go to hell.” You know, “I had to, you know, touch a monk. I had to kill monks.” This is a deeply devout, non-violent country. I mean non-violent meaning the religion is non-violent. Right. So you’re not even supposed to kill a fly. I knew a Burmese teacher friend of my mom’s who would ask for, you know, these fly things. What do you call ‘em? Fly . . .

AARON BROWN:
Fly swatters?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . not swatters. Maybe they don’t have ‘em anymore. You, you know…

AARON BROWN:
The thing where you shoot the fly?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No. I’m . . .

AARON BROWN:
Something where you go . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No, the fly, not a swatter. It’s a spray. The spray. So she was looking for “How strong is it? How strong is it?” “Oh, well that will kill the fly.” “Oh, no, no, no. I want another one.” She wanted just a stunned fly. Not a killed fly.

AARON BROWN:
Like the Taser for a fly?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah. Can you believe this? And she’s serious.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So that’s the normal Burmese.

AARON BROWN:
So 10 years from now . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So they’re freaked out.

AARON BROWN:
. . . we sit down and we say . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
We’ll . . .

AARON BROWN:
. . . you all . . .

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
. . . sit down . . .

AARON BROWN:
And you say, “You know, back in 2007 was really the beginning of the end.”

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Will be at the end 10 years from now or will be on the road to the end 10 years from now?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
No, I think probably be pretty well on the road to the end. Hopefully we could have this conversation in Burma. Burma. Unless the people vote to change it and call it Myanmar. Then we’ll have it in Myanmar.

AARON BROWN:
I’m all for that.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
Me too.

AARON BROWN:
That sounds like a great place to have a conversation. In a free Burma.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN:
So instead of next year in Burma, next decade in Burma.

AARON BROWN:
That’s a lot to ask. I hope that happens. Thank you.

  • Harry Than Htut

    Sanctions does not really hurt the junta. They get what they want and does flourishing business with Singapore, China and many other countries.

    Maureen Aung-Thwin is a friend and a great Lady.

  • move on

    Maureen’s take on the situations past, present and future is remarkably pro people.
    Having the gut to make Aung San Suu Kyi freedom and the benefit of the people through “incremental” changes as mutually exclusive events is truly laudable.
    However Aaron Brown should read this following articles:

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6479/is_3_30/ai_n31178685/

    Before trying to literally badger Maureen into vilifying the present SPDC government. Whose repugnant means of control are well documented and repeatedly high lighted by opposition groups.
    Not mentioning the 20+ years of crippling Sanctions that hurt the people more than the Junta is truly hypocritical and shameful.
    US and the west can justify their senseless acts, started by Aung San Suu Kyi prompting and maintain by an industry that use the continued sufferings f the Burmese people as their survival here in the WEST, as Democracy or forcing SPDC to change through the albeit “Banana Republic” approach.
    Obviously the policy of Sanctions, now the main cause of SPDC intransigence as well as the massive sufferings of the people compounded by Nargiss, need to be revised.
    Aaron Brown after reading the presented article might like to redo this interview and may be let Maureen talk, instead of forcing her to say lines that toe an ideas that is popular but do not bring any benefit to the people but plenty of proven harms,the west can then truly learn what is really needed to help a nation of people that look towards US as an example.
    As it is the useless blanketed Sanction has proven to be the opposite of what originally intended for. The degree of which is up for debate.
    I do not think Mr Brown will look too good in that kind of interview where “Does Sanction help or make matter worst” is the subject.
    After all PBS is one of the true supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi. The very original prompter of this idea.

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