Sunday, September 23, 2012

May 2012 The Fighting Peacock Begins to Dance

Sethu Das / May 2012
Dr Tint Swe is a physician-tuned Burmese politician. He is also the Minister for Information and Public Relations of the Prime Ministers' Office of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). Design & People Co-founder Sethu Das in conversation with Dr Tint Swe, one of the most prominent Burmese politicians who enjoys conducting free medical camps for his community living in exile.

Dr Tint Swe speaks during the 4th Conference of National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) in December 2003.

IN Buddhism, a peacock — which is native to both India and Burma — symbolises acceptance and wisdom. Over the centuries, a symbolic peacock has always held an important place on the national flags of Burma. It was the national emblem and very much a part of the former flags of the Burmese Empire. However, the National League for Democracy (NLD) founded under the leadership of Noble Peace Laureate Aung Saung Suu Kyi in 1988, had a slightly different version of a peacock on its flag — an aggressive and rebellious peacock fighting the military dictatorship symbolised by a white star.

During our many months-long journey to different Tibetan refugee settlements in Arunachal Pradesh, "claimed" by the People's Republic of China, I was constantly thinking of the people of two of our international neighbours — Tibet and Burma — two Buddhist nations, both of who are ironically ruled by the military regimes of the "People's Republic". While walking through the dusty roads of Arunachal Pradesh and crossing the Brahmaputra River on an elephant, the only technology that connected our five-member team with the rest of the world was my world receiver radio. Except for Tibetan Poet-Activist Tenzin Tsundue who carried his own radio for news bulletins in Tibetan, the rest of the team members of the ambitious three-year long 'Non-Violent Action for Tibet' workshop held by Friends of Tibet in 2003 depended entirely on my world receiver for the latest news and happenings from around the globe.

And one morning the BBC World Service Radio telecasted a recorded message from Aung Saung Suu Kyi, the fearless Burmese lady who became a beacon of hope for the millions of Burmese staying in exile within their own country. It was a rare radio message from her house arrest. She said: "Most people forget others once they are free. I request the international community that lives in freedom to come forward to support the Burmese people in their struggle for freedom." Her request for support from people like us once again reminded me that as a responsible, powerful and a democratic country, India has failed to condemn the human right violations by the military junta in Myanmar. We have failed to show our solidarity to those in a political crisis, as we did in the case of Tibet.

Aung Saung Suu Kyi has a special place in the hearts of the Tibetan people. Her book 'Freedom From Fear' is more like a Bible to many young Tibetan democracy and human rights activists living in exile in India. But more than anything, Aung Saung Suu Kyi is often remembered by the Tibetan community through her Cuba-born late husband — Michael Vaillancourt Aris, who died of cancer in 1999. The Burmese authorities did not allow the ailing Michael Aris to see his wife who was in house arrest in Burma since 1989. Instead the junta permitted Aung Saung to "leave" the country to meet with Aris hoping that Burma could close her doors on Aung Saung Suu Kyi forever. However, the calculations of the military generals were proved wrong as she decided to remain with her country and her people rather than joining her ailing husband and children back in the UK. It is said that one of the last wishes of Michael Vaillancourt Aris was to set up an institution for Tibetan and Himalayan studies. The Michael Aris Memorial Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies has now been set up at Oxford, with Prince Charles being one of its patrons. Hoping that Aung Saung Suu Kyi will not be prevented from re-entering the new Burma, British Prime Minister David Cameron who was on a "trade-mission" invited her to the "beloved Oxford" this year, an invitation which she happily accepted.

Burma's fight for freedom and democracy won many enthusiastic followers and supporters worldwide — especially in the West. The cause enjoyed both political and financial support from the US and EU nations that otherwise had no physical presence in the region during the military rule. The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) or the Burmese Government in Exile, formed in 1990 was allowed to function from the United States to fight the regime. The Government of the Union of Burma formed on the philosophy that "it would be dissolved once democracy and human rights are restored in Burma," had Dr Sein Win, the first cousin of Aung Saung Suu Kyi as its Prime Minister.

Dr Tint Swe, a physician by profession is also the Minister for Information and Public Relations of the Prime Ministers' Office of NCGUB. He is a prominent Burmese politician who continues to work for the welfare and the political freedom of his people from outside Burma. Dr Swe who fled his country in 1990 to escape the military rule was also a elected Burmese peoples' representative of the1990 election. Through his Yamuna Clinic, Dr Tint Swe conducts regular free medical camps for the Burmese refugee community members living in exile, especially among those living in the North-East parts of India.

Anticipating a much more politically turbulent and difficulty filled days ahead for Burma, Dr Tint Swe agreed to answer some of my questions in spite of his very busy political engagements.

Sethu Das: You've come a long way — from being a humble physician to a successful Burmese politician, who played a very significant role from outside, in the release of Aung Saung Suu Kyi and the final victory of your people in their fight against the military junta in Burma. How do you assess the political situation in the country today?

Dr Tint Swe: I am always suspicious of the military regime which continues ruling the country in different clothes and dissimilar names. The changes so far are welcome but only God knows if Burma will go back to ground zero. Certainly it is a relief from severe suppression and brutal crackdowns, but it is still too shallow. And, to top it off there is the undemocratic constitution which was made unchangeable. On the street there is no noticeable improvement; the areas where minorities live is as it had been before. While we can see the ray of light, we still remain in the dark.

Sethu Das: I was told by someone who visits Burma regularly that "Aung Saung Suu Kyi brings everything the military junta wanted to bring to Myanmar — business opportunities, foreign investment and foreign tourists." How far is this statement true?

Dr Tint Swe: Aung San Suu Kyi is taking a calculated risk. I do not think the generals did make these changes for the good of the country. They just wanted to continue ruling in discrete style. The events in the Arab world taught the generals a life-saving lesson to show them that undemocratic regimes cannot rule forever and dictators will be brought to justice. The 26-year close-door rule by General Ne Win made the people blind and the 22-year pure military rule by the Senior Generals made the people desperate. Hopefully, the new set-up may pave the way for new opportunities for the people, but it took decades.

Sethu Das: During the civil-resistance and the anti-government movement inside Burma, India was probably the only country to send an official delegation to sign a memorandum with the military junta. How satisfied are you with the political role that India played and the support it extended in the last many decades?

Dr Tint Swe: I am always undiplomatic when it comes to talk about India's policy on Burma. I understand the national interest of every country. Being an exile in India I have full sympathy for India's good. What I see is that the 15-year implementation of the Look East policy did not serve in India's interest. As Aung San Suu Kyi suggested, and I agree, India can do more for bringing about democracy in Burma. I do not think that a policy which is contrary to public opinion is being realistic. Realistic means sensible as well as truthful. We got resilient support from India and people of India are for freedom and democracy. But the policy of a pro-regime remains and I doubt if this policy has brought any considerable reward to India.

Sethu Das: As a democratic and powerful nation, India's reluctance in questioning the human rights violations in the 2007 anti-regime protests was widely condemned. We even declared openly that "India has no interest in 'interfering' in Burma's internal issues" in order to appease the regime at Rangoon. Today the very same country is contesting with China to become the first to host Aung Saung Suu Kyi. Are you surprised?

Dr Tint Swe: We have equal regard for China and India as well as Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos, all of who are Burma's close neighbors. We want and we need good relations with all nations. But, the sentiment of the people is very important if the country is sensible. The general sentiment of Burmese people is more or less the same for India and China. A friend in need is a friend in deed is truly a Burmese proverb. At the same time I know there are people who come forward to present flowers when all is favorable, but they were not seen when troubles were there.

Sethu Das: According to you how long do you think Burma would require to bring in political reforms and lift the sanctions imposed?

Dr Tint Swe: The international community is eager to embrace democratic Burma. But, the lifting of sanctions does not correspond to the real situation. To impose the sanctions it took years and the lives of numerous political activists have been sacrificed. Lobbying for sanctions was arduous and those who called for sanctions were blamed by the analysts who do not understand the real Burma situation. They just quote theories or may even be paid by the Burmese military. There is no guarantee that there will be no more crackdowns on protesters (like the 1988 student demonstration and 2007 monk protest) and no assurance that there will be no assassination attempt against Aung San Suu Kyi (like the 2003 Depayin massacre). The latest report on Human Rights Situation at the United Nations is still awaited and yet to be released. Millions of refugees and migrant workers still do not see any hope for return in the near future. It was the sanctions and the pressure that forced the generals to make such a move. The engagement policy and appeasement have only lengthened the dictatorship rule in Burma. They deserve no credit.

Sethu Das: Burma wants technology and foreign funds from the United States. At the same time Burma cannot afford to lose its long-term political and business ally — China. And for China, business with Burma means access to the Indian Ocean. India too wants to play its own political role in this region. Do you think the new Burma would turn into Asia's battleground for international politics?

Dr Tint Swe: Now Burma will become more international as the West is coming in. China's dominance will be diluted to some extent while India's presence will be wider. The rivalry between India and China has made Burma precarious. It is unfortunate because the military junta exploited, for its own sake, the country's security... Now Burma should seek good things from each power, the US, EU, China and India.

Sethu Das: Freedom to Burma also means entry of foreign forces that never had a presence during the military rule. Are you concerned about the possible influence of these powers?

Dr Tint Swe: Compromises are extremely important in a changing political scenario. Like a youth's dream, the new Burma should seek the best possible assistances from the best resources. It is not the time to rely on cheap second and third class weapons. Burma's armed forces should be of high quality rather than quantity. Burma has experienced a one-man show influence and will never opt for another influence of such a kind. Burma has now understood who its friends are and who its foes are. The National League for Democracy (NLD) has written a paper on "No Permanent Friends and No Permanent Enemies."

(Editing: Shilpa Mirpuri)