Wednesday, March 4, 2009

23-10-2007 Interview, by Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman and Julien Levesque

Interview, by Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman and Julien Levesque
23 October 2007

Dr. Tint Swe Member of Parliament
South Asia Affairs Minister (NCGUB)
Ko Zin Naing All Burma Student Democratic Front
Dr. Zaw Win Aung Federation of Trade Unions of Burma
Ko Myint Aye 1988 student leader
Steven Zomi National Congress

I. Recent protests and present situation
II. India, the Northeast and Burma
III. Prospects for change and the role of the international community

I. Recent protests and present situation
Julien Levesque (J): There are rumors of new protests at the end of October. Should we expect more demonstrations?
Tint Swe: Some reports do speak of new protests in Rangoon, but we cannot make sure whether it is true or not. I am sure people will try to do something, maybe on a small scale, so that won’t it make to the headlines. But it is very risky now. Most probably, if protests happen, they will take place in the first two weeks of November, when Mr. Gambari and Mr. Pinheiro are there. These will be strategic days. Mr. Gambari was first supposed to come in mid-November, but the UN pushed him to go in the first week. I finally got a call from London telling me he got the green signal to go in the first week of November. Mr. Pinheiro will be there in the second week.

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman (M): Do you think last month’s protests have somewhat dissipated? The army managed to dissuade the monks from protesting, and their moral support seems essential in this year’s demonstrations. How does the military government influence the monks?
Tint Swe: If we analyze the September uprising, we will see that it was more organized, more coordinated, than in 1988. One difference is that in 1988, students were leading the protests. In 2007, dissident students were detained before mass uprisings arose, and then monks took the lead. That is very significant, as monks have more authority and are more disciplined than students. Their capacity of coordination is large: the four demands made by monks have been agreed by all (political parties, students, 1988 veterans). The junta was also very clear in the way a systematic strategy was used to contain this process. They had to use disproportional force, which explains why protesters were suppressed in a few days or a week. Anyhow, we pay the price, and the regime also does. But, on our side, we are ready to pay that price. We have loss a lesser amount of people than in 1988, but managed to gain tremendous support from the international community. It is totally different, and therefore I think it is worthy to pay the price.

M: Do you think ethnic groups are well coordinated in their fight against the junta?
Ko Zin Naing: Yes, they are coordinated as much as they can, although they’ve gone through forty years of insurrection. Some of the groups also signed ceasefire agreements with the regime. Now, I think all the armed ethnic groups have some understanding, inside and outside the democratic forces, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. The junta will never yield to a tripartite dialogue, or to a federal structure. So the first thing to do is topple the military junta.
Tint Swe: Democracy must first be achieved so that a tripartite dialogue and a federal organization can be set up.

M: Is the leadership of these communities being used by the junta for political gains?
Tint Swe: Yes. The Burmese regime is like a British colony: they divide and rule. We have about 20 armed groups. The junta divided them and pressured them against one another in order to have them sign ceasefire agreements. However, these agreements have been concluded 15 years ago, and the ethnic groups now realized that they did not gain anything from them. They’ve become dissatisfied with the regime. There is a crisis; we are learning some critical information from some of these groups. Four groups, among which the strongest group – 15,000 people –, held their own meeting to promote national reconciliation. Divide and rule has worked for 15 years, but is no more efficient. The ethnic groups’ dissatisfaction with the regime is a good sign.

J: There are some dissensions among the generals, and the order to shoot on monks was not well received by many soldiers. Are there really cracks within the junta, and more generally, in the army?
Tint Swe: We cannot be sure about these. There must be some dissent among officers, which is why they are now transferring officers, showing that the regime is tightly in control. It is hard to tell right now, but in a few weeks, we’ll be able to see resignations, transfers, signs of a reshuffling. Anyways, the generals hold each other’s hands firmly, not out of love, but because they fear to collapse.

J: For the first time, people say that they hate the military.
Tint Swe: Yes, American professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University spoke about that. He used to be literally pro-military. But yesterday, he honestly said that people actually hate the military. His analysis could be more reliable than ours: there is not only frustration, but also hatred of the regime. The military try to compensate by building monasteries, giving donations, but this hatred cannot be erased.
Ko Zin Naing: India did not get anything from Burma as a result of its look-east policy. Indian policy makers don’t seem to care about the sentiments of the Burmese. But many Indians are living in Burma, and they are angry too.
Tint Swe: In today’s Hindu, there is an interview of the former UN Secretary General U Thant’s grandson who is in Delhi. The military view prevails in the Indian policy towards Burma. When India changed its Burmese policy around 1992-93, the cooperation between the two countries started as military to military talks. Then politicians meetings were organized. As long as the military view prevails in India’s foreign policy, there won’t be much attention accorded to political implications, but only to strategic matters. India’s policy is also based on military reports.
Steven: The authorities never get the ground situation.

II. India, the Northeast and Burma

M: Most of the people in mainland India are not at all concerned about Burma. Only a handful care about the Burmese situation. However, the concern is higher in Northeast India. How do you see India’s role in Burma?
Tint Swe: The whole of India’s foreign policy is occupied by Pakistan, even in its struggle to become a global power. India is paying a lot of attention to the “look east” policy, but its policy there is wrong. Many journalists and politicians don’t even know about it, but if you look at the experience of fifteen years of “look east” policy, India has not been successful. Many armed ethnic groups taking shelter in Burma are the products of the “look east” policy. This policy is counterproductive. Before the “look east” policy, these groups were not in Burma; they took refuge in Bangladesh or Bhutan. In addition, the border with Burma was open in the 1990s, facilitating arms smuggling. In a 2006 Indian government report, it is said that from 2000-2006, 39,000 AK-47 made in China have been seized in the Northeast. The “look east” policy is fuelling the insurgents it is supposed to fight, and this news is nowhere to be read because the Indian media try to defend their government’s policies.
Dr. Zaw Win Aung: Three reasons for India’s policy over Burma: the China factor, the Northeastern insurgency, and finally gas and oil. But India has failed in all three aspects.

M: I think the junta is using the Northeastern insurgency as leverage against India.
Dr. Zaw: Manipuri insurgents are allowed shelter in Burma.
Tint Swe: China has stronger cards in hand than India. That is why India must create cards.

M: When you look at the trade between Northeast India and Burma, you see that Northeast India is disconnected from the larger Indian policy. It is also important to notice that people in the Northeast are very supportive of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Have Burmese refugees and organizations, such as the All Burma Student Democratic Front, done anything to mobilize people in the Northeast?
Ko Myint Aye: Many protests have been set up with Indian student unions, such as Manipur Student Union and AASU, in Manipur and Assam. We also work with NGOs. But as you know, we stay in New Delhi, so it is difficult to organize things over there, although the strong support of the people allows us to go at any time.
Tint Swe: Everywhere in India, people are very supportive. So I wonder what the Indian democracy is all about. Public opinion does not influence foreign policy.

M: Do you think democracy in Burma is linked with the development of Northeast India?
Tint Swe: Yes, that is true. You can compare India’s Northeast with China’s Yunnan province: both are land-locked remote regions that are underdeveloped. To facilitate that development, Burma is needed on both sides. China is doing very well on that one. Northeast India could have intense relations with Burma but policy prevents this from happening. As long as the junta is there, we cannot materialize these potential relations.
Ko Zin Naing: Unlike China, India does not understand the military regime’s policies. Neither China nor Burma are democratic, thus they understand each other well. As long as Burma is not a democracy, India will never win over Burma. Even if the generals opt for a regime change in Burma, they will go for a Chinese-type democracy, which is not very democratic…

J: India’s policy has been designed in reaction to Chinese influence; it has been timid and reactive. Could India engage Myanmar while at the same time preserving a strong stance in favor of democracy?
Tint Swe: True, India’s policy is reactive, and always too late. Chinese diplomats take more initiatives. For example, when Ibrahim Gambari went to Rangoon, China’s ambassador was at the airport to welcome him. Where was the Indian ambassador? Gambari has thanked China for facilitating his interaction with the regime. A liaison officer has just been appointed to enable dialogue between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi; so Indian diplomats should go and meet him before China does. That would be a bold and innovative move. Indian diplomats in Rangoon never attend NLD functions, where pro-democracy and ethnic leaders can be found. It’s wrong. Diplomacy is not black and white, but it seems that it is how India conceives it. On 14 October in the Times of India, Shashi Tharoor argued that India cannot afford an ethical policy. I replied explaining why India can and should afford an ethical policy.

III. Prospects for change and the role of the international community

J: You mentioned Pakistan earlier. Do you know anything about links between Pakistan and Burma?
Tint Swe: In fact, Pakistan was one of the few countries that sold arms to the regime in the early days (1980s-1990s). Later, Pakistan was busy with its own domestic issues. Now, I believe Pakistan’s involvement in Burma is very minimal. There are some Burmese extremists who go for training to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In Bhutto’s recent bomb blast, I read a piece saying three nationals from Burma were linked with the attack.

J: What are the prospects of an evolution of the regime towards a softer dictatorship or towards democracy?
Tint Swe: I have to be cautious, but optimistic on this question. The ground reality has totally changed. It is not the same as 19 years ago. The junta cannot ignore the present world’s view of Burma. They cannot rule like they used to. And condemnation of the regime has reached China, India and the UN, who will force the regime to compromise. It depends on many factors, but we are on the right track: the regime has to go. The remaining question is: how long will it take? I believe they can only rule a few years more.

J: What do you think is most likely to happen? Will the military be toppled and will an entirely civilian government come to replace it?
Tint Swe: There are several possible scenarios. But, right now, we have to make the scenario analysis differently. There is a very comprehensive 40-page report made by an American lady who stayed in Rangoon and met top leaders of the junta. She gives four or five scenarios, including a collapse of the state, an international intervention, an evolutionary process, etc. But this is now out of date. The most plausible scenario today is a rapid transition to democracy. Time has come. In this transition, all now agree that the military has to play a role to some extent. It has to be a fast evolution: within a few years’ time (3-4 years, not 20 years), there should be a transition. We cannot expect a movement like Aguinaldo’s in the Philippines, because we have been too heavily suppressed. One possibility could be a good evolution through coalition. Otherwise, there could be an internal coup within the military; Than Shwe is ageing and his policy has failed, so a new general taking over would have to think of a creative policy. He must realize that he cannot rule 19 years like Than Shwe without modifying his policy. If a dialogue takes place, things won’t take long. In a few years’ time, an interim government can hold the post before a new elected civilian government comes into power.

J: But you agree that the army has to keep a role?
Tint Swe: Yes, we have to accept that compromise, because we cannot kick them out of power. For instance, before the recent crisis, a very significant letter was written by 92 MPs from Burma to Ban Ki-moon, in which they define their own 7 steps to democracy (the way the regime also defined its 7-step road-map to democracy). They propose to write a draft constitution in parallel to that of the regime. So the role of army may not be the prominent one they ask for, but it will play a part in the near future nevertheless.

M: Journalist Kenji Nagai was killed in the recent protests in Rangoon, provoking an immediate reaction of the Japanese authorities. Do you think Japan will help the pro-democracy movement in the near future?
Tint Swe: Japan has been a very reluctant country, even to stop ODA (Overseas Development Assistance), and has always been more on the side of engagement. Japan is conducted by domestic pressure and took a stance only because of Nagai’s death. Now things depend on the international community, under UN leadership. We are glad that an international consensus has been reached on Burma, going beyond the traditional opposition between sanctions and engagement. There has been progress in the past three-four years in making this dichotomy irrelevant. Now, India and China are both on board.

J: What about the role of ASEAN? Can ASEAN play a role in a regime change?
Tint Swe: ASEAN has been very supportive of the regime and reluctant to adopt sanctions or make official statements, because of Burma’s membership of ASEAN. But Singapore recently expressed a very strong condemnation of the repression – Mr. Gambari pointed that out. Still, we are not satisfied with ASEAN’s position. For instance, Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, remarked that Burma’s multiple insurgencies would lead the country into civil war (“a new Iraq”), were a regime change to happen. I totally disagree with that; he does not know these insurgencies exist precisely because of the oppression of the Burmese army. Under a democratic regime, I am sure all the ethnic groups would agree upon federalism. The details have to be discussed, but we do have some fundamental agreement among all of us: federalism and inclusive tripartite dialogue within a democratic framework.

M: What do you think of the five-party talks over Burma?
Tint Swe: Thailand tried to do a few things, like the Bangkok process, inspired by the Venezuela approach, with big party talk. But Thailand’s PM wrote a letter to Ban Ki-moon last week, and did not mention that process. So we must now rely only on UN initiatives.

M: What good do you foresee in the future that will come from the international community?
Tint Swe: The international community will back the UN, its Secretary-General and the Security Council. The issue has reached a higher level of decision. It is no more limited to the General Assembly.

J: Apart from sanctions, what can be used as leverage to pressurize the military regime?
Tint Swe: In 2000-2001, the regime made the same cosmetic change: dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, pictures of Than Shwe and Suu Kyi in the papers, etc. It was a trick to gain a few years. They will try the same thing now. So there must be a warning and other pressure to speed up the process of dialogue. Means to pressurize include: threaten to impose more sanctions, UN arms embargo, bring the regime before the International Criminal Court. For China, threaten to boycott the 2008 Olympics. What I expect from the UN is that an office is set up in Rangoon for Ban Ki-moon or Gambari; we will push for that. We also want a timeframe, be it over five or ten years. With the timeframe, a warning must be conveyed: if the process is not followed, then UN intervention will take place. Without such pressure, the international community will be deceived by the regime. This is the right strategy. We cannot wait for them to follow their own timeframe.

J: Is there any possibility for cooperation between China, India and ASEAN in order to push for change in Burma, as their represent three quarters of Burma’s external trade?
Tint Swe: If it were so, it would be great. But we cannot expect such a thing to happen. All these countries keep in mind their own interests. It will also depend on the ground situation, as the situation in Burma is changing day by day. So their approach to Burma also has to change. It is now time for India and China to think of a strategy of transition in Burma, and abandon their strategy of a military Burma. Their competition has been gone during 19 years of military rule. It is now finished, and time for transition. So who will be faster and wiser? Some will be left out. China got the upper hand in 1988, but today, China has to be careful because of the upcoming Olympics.

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