Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Q&A Tint Swe, Member, Government-in-Exile

‘We are probably the only country where the Constitution provides for a military coup’

TINT SWE has spent the past 22 years living in exile in New Delhi. Elected to the Burmese Parliament in 1990, he was forced to flee the military regime in December the same year.
Photo: Arun Sehrawat
As a member of the recently disbanded National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (Burmese government-in-exile), he worked to garner support from India for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and their demand for democracy. In an exclusive chat with Avalok Langer, Swe discusses what role India can play in Myanmar’s future as a democracy and an economy.

EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Why were you forced to flee your country after being elected?
I was elected in the 1990 election. At the time and until 2010, Myanmar was a police state run by intelligence operatives. There were spies everywhere and everyone was suspicious of each other. After being elected, along with other NLD members, we held a series of secret meetings, but our secrets were revealed to the intelligence body and many of my colleagues were arrested. The authorities came to my house to arrest me, but I had already gone into hiding. The plan was to escape to Thailand, but they were looking for me everywhere, so the nearest escape route was to India and I have been living here as a member of the government-in-exile for the past 22 years.

What do you think motivated the military to hand over power, release Aung San Suu Kyi and push for democracy?
There are many theories on this, and my analysis is that there are personal as well economic reasons. Myanmar was ruled by the military junta, and the military is a top-down structure; the man at the top decides everything in consultation with a small group of advisers. This decision was also top-down, so we have to think why Senior General Than Shwe did that.

I think the Arab Spring led to a realisation that the world is changing and that dictators cannot rule forever. Also, visuals of dictators being killed would have played on his mind. He knows how both his predecessors — General Ne Win, who seized power in a 1962 coup, and General Saw Maung — died. Ne Win had six people at his funeral and Saw Maung had a nervous breakdown. He must have wanted to do something good, given that he is nearing 80.

Economics also played a huge role. At a personal level, having monopolised power, all the generals became very rich, but because of the sanctions imposed by the US and Europe, over 400 top military officials were denied visas to these countries. So, though they had money, they could not travel anywhere or spend that money. At the national level, the country’s economy is in a bad shape. There is no new investment and nothing is coming in, other than Chinese and Indian goods. So they decided that Myanmar could not go on like this for the next 20 years.

With how much conviction can we say democracy has come to Myanmar? Isn’t the army still in control of things?
The country has opened up, things are much better than before and the new information minister has allowed for more free press. We could see an independent newspaper coming up in Myanmar shortly. But having said that, the 2008 Constitution is a big hurdle and that is why the NLD, in the recent by-election manifesto, mentioned it needs to be amended.

‘Whenever the issue came up, both India and China have supported the military regime. India has a unique history of democracy. It should act differently’

According to the Constitution, 20 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for uniformed military personnel, who enjoy equal voting rights. The remaining 80 percent comprises non-uniformed, retired military personnel. They are elected to the House, but they toe the same line as the military. There is a clause in the Constitution, which we have labelled the ‘Constitution coup’ clause, that allows the military to seize power if it doesn’t like the state of affairs. We are probably the only country in the world where the Constitution provides for a military coup.

There is a lot of talk about the ‘race’ between India and China over Myanmar. What do you make of it?
Yes, the China factor in Myanmar is big, and unfortunately, the Indian government’s socalled pragmatic approach has ensured that it followed the same steps as China — soft-loans to Myanmar, border trade, and political support in international forums. Whenever the issue came up, both the Indian and Chinese governments supported the military regime. They took the same line, and I am not happy about that. For me, India is different from China. Not that I prefer India to China, but India has a unique history of democracy and old ties with Myanmar. It should act differently from the way China does.

What role do you feel India should be playing in Myanmar?
As things change, our demands and appeals to the Indian government are also changing. We don’t need to ask it to support democracy, or for the release of prisoners and Aung San Suu Kyi. Now is the time for business. Most of the foreign investment in Myanmar is to exploit the natural resources — gas and forests. We want a new kind of foreign business in Myanmar. We want the best things from each country. India is known for its English education and IT; they can bring that to Myanmar. We have military personnel coming to India for training, but why don’t we have scholarships for civilian students? Why can’t Indian teachers go to Myanmar? This will facilitate person-to-person exchanges.

We need quality infrastructure; India should look at investing in that. Sixty-five percent of Myanmar is agrarian, so why not export good agricultural practices and technologies. As the Myanmarese prefer Indian medicines to Chinese or Thai medicines, pharmaceuticals is a big investment opportunity. Also, the media has a very important role to play as we make this transition. We have young people who are now in the media circle, but they need training and exposure.

Do you think India is losing out in Myanmar; is there a pro-China sentiment in the country?
I am sure most Myanmarese generals also are not happy with only China’s presence in our country. I think India is trying to exploit that, but it is being too slow. Earlier, only China, India and some ASEAN countries were key players in Myanmar. Now we are more international, and opening up to everybody. The West is coming in very fast and Myanmar needs to balance things out. We don’t want any hegemony. China is already there, ties with the US are developing fast, and India is coming in behind. But we do not want to fall into the trap of favouring only one country.

Having said that, though I am not exactly happy with India’s policy on Myanmar, I will never fail to mention that it is the best country in the world when it comes to refugees. The millions of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand can’t live the same way we live here in India; we enjoy the freedom, the mobility and the hospitality of India. I have to thank the Indian government for its support.

Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
avalok@tehelka.com