Dr. Zarni offers a first-hand understanding of the failed Myanmar democracy movement and its autocratic leader Suu Kyi
By The Citizen
‘Suu Kyi and Virtually the Entire Opposition Were Completely Enamoured with US Power’
An extended interview with Maung Zarni, an educator and political activist in exile who was closely associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and erstwhile face of democratic politics in Myanmar.
Zarni recalls the hopes many vested in Suu Kyi after her father Aung San was assassinated in 1947, and his own journey towards disillusionment.
The interview is the first in a series of reports from or about India’s neighbouring countries, yesterday and today.
You worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi? Tell us about what made you do so and those initial days.
For two reasons: one was sentimental and the other factual. Her martyred father Aung San was a role model for me and for generations of young Burmese. He was the most brutally honest, Marxist-inspired revolutionary, staunchly secularist, a nationalist.
In those British and European colonial days, nationalism was categorically a progressive ideology, with the promise of a freedom from the White Man’s yoke.
Besides, Aung San was a friend, classmate and immediate dormitory neighbour of my late great-uncle at Rangoon University in the early 1930s, who told me firsthand stories about his revolutionary friend in the most glowing terms.
Suu Kyi being Aung San’s daughter, I transferred all my reverence to her when she actually started speaking out against the wrongs of General Ne Win, her father’s junior comrade, in the midst of the country’s uprisings in 1988.
Factual, because she was well educated, liberal-sounding, seemingly concerned about the plight of Burma’s wretched of the earth at the expense of her freedom as a Britain-based post-graduate student at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and was putting the cause of democracy and human rights above her own family’s well being.
What did you think of Suu Kyi then?
I thought the world of her. She was definitely a major source of inspiration for me in those momentum years of our country.
I had nothing whatsoever to do with the 1988 uprisings, as in August ’88 I was already a youngish man (barely 25) in Northern California getting ready to attend graduate school, who left the country on a Burmese passport before the uprisings.
Her courageous defiance of the military dictatorship was one of the triggers for my open opposition as an overseas Burmese student back then.
What was the point of departure in that you felt you had made a wrong decision? Were the differences all political or was there a personal sense of disillusionment?
Both political and personal. But more political. For 15 years, I supported her unequivocally from the day she entered the pro-democracy opposition movement – which was ignited initially by university students across the country because the grownups were too clever and too cowardly.
But by 1999, a small circle of Burmese dissidents in exile – including Suu Kyi’s own cousin, whom she entrusted to lead the government-in-exile made up of exiled MP-elects from the 1990 elections, the results of which were never honoured by the military – began to worry that the entire opposition flagship party, the National League for Democracy, would go into a coma each time she was placed under house arrest.
Additionally, she was showing no signs of providing the opposition movement, whether within or outside Burma, any concrete strategic vision or intellectual or political program.
In fact, some of us were putting liberal words in her mouth. We would send in a messenger to her with a specific campaign call or slogan, and she in turn would audio or videorecord those messages, and we would amplify her voice.
Beyond this process of manufacturing a “liberal, iconic” Oxford-educated, petitite, mediagenic leader, we weren’t really building the NLD oppostion in the mould of a revolutionary ANC under Mandela.
On the personal level, I was getting quietly very disillusioned with her as the leader paramount.
One example among many that I took as a sign of Suu Kyi’s total leadership failure: She called a press conference in 2005 (I believe) when she was briefly free from house arrest. Every diplomat and journo rushed to her house or party headquarters in Rangoon, thinking that she was going to say something important about the financial and economic crisis prevailing in the country.
There was public panic about the solvency of Myanmar banks, which triggered a bank run.
But instead of offering policy alternatives or politically exploiting the heightened popular disdain for the inept and corrupt military rulers – her captors – she spent the entire press conference talking about her personal feud with her first cousin who was living in her servant quarters!
She squandered so many such opportunities.
What was the final breaking point?
You mean my open break with the NLD leader?
It was more gradual than a sudden disillusionment or epiphany – that she ain’t cut out to be the needed revolutionary leader like Mandela or her late father. My disillusionment was not solely about her leadership failures, but was coupled with what I had come to know firsthand about the United States’ real policies towards Myanmar – I lived and worked full time as an activist and political advocate in Washington DC for a number of years.
The US government typically pays lip service to democracy and human rights – and many officials and politicians actually believe their own propaganda! – but when push comes to shove, it is without exception their material interests, whatever those are at any given time or in specific contexts, that dictate US policy and conduct.
Some honest American officials told me without mincing words, “We are not interested in your freedoms or democracy. Find solutions through your own efforts.”
Suu Kyi and virtually the entire opposition were completely enamoured with US power, and more importantly, with what they thought Washington would do to advance our democratic cause.
So in 2004, a number of these factors finally pushed me to openly break with her, and with the entire pro-Suu Kyi opposition and public in Burma.
I did it in somewhat dramatic fashion. I made an arrangement with the head of Burmese military intelligence – then General Khin Nyunt – to come and explore various ways to move the country’s political deadlock: at the time the military leaders and Suu Kyi in captivity at home were not talking to each other at all, beyond security matters or her house’s roof repair.
My move was one of the most explosive political acts by an activist in those days. As expected, Suu Kyi supporters, virtually the entire Burmese public and the entire opposition at home and overseas, as well as non-Burmese friends and admirers of Suu Kyi around the world, went hysterical.
But I stuck to my conclusion that Suu Kyi was neither Mandela nor her capable father. That was despite the overwhelming public opinion, that Suu Kyi stood for principles and for public well being, for a liberal future of the country; that she embodied those so-called “Western” liberal values, and that I was the total opposite: a political opportunist, crossing the line to “support the evil regime.”
The rest is history as they say.
You have been very critical of her lately, particularly on the Rohingya issue. Did her stand surprise you?
I have been scathingly critical of her since 2004, saying her policies of isolation of Burma were not working and that she wasn’t cut out to lead a revolutionary movement, nor capable of any meaningful deal with the devil.
No, her stand did not surprise me at all. I shared a panel with her at the London School of Economics on her 67th birthday – 18 June 2012 – and she chose not to confront the violence against Rohingyas, which had erupted only a few weeks prior to the panel.
A real leader would not shirk or shy away from any issue of national or global concern. In fact leaders shine in crises – wars, uprising, revolts, what have you. Crises are also opportunities to demonstrate your capabilities, morally, intellectually, spiritually and strategically.
In her case, she is not simply a moral coward or a political failure, but racist and personally nasty, despite sweet smiles and honey-tongued speeches. She would behind the scenes undermine or block the voices of any reputable dissidents or democrats from Burma, at home or in exile, denying entry visas to those who challenged her, or spoke out for a marked population such as the Rohingyas, or the other oppressed minorities of Burma.
You are in exile now? How does that work for you?
I am happy being in exile. As the first Burmese Buddhist who, with no qualm, “betrays” his racist, violent country of birth, permanent exilehood suits me best as it enables me to stay uncompromised, uncorrupt in any sense of those words.
I don’t simply speak out for the Rohingya. I speak out and offer solidarity to any community “at home” in Burma or the Palestinians or Uyghurs or Assamese Muslims – really any wreteched of the earth.
I feel very much at home in exile. Home is where I can realise and live my values and principles.
I am developing forsea.co, a cross-border network of Southeast Asian democrats, grassroots activists, public intellectuals and engaged scholars, working in close collaboration with Thai, Malay, Philippino, Burmese, Khmer and Indonesian colleagues.
I don’t do NGO, and in fact I am disdainful of NGOs that parrot western donors and their singular paradigms. I am in total agreement with people like Arundhati Roy who rail against the NGOisation of our resistance movements.
I incorporate my professional background as a scholar and educator of education – I trained as a sociologist and curriculum developer – into my activism. I view activism as educational, and vice versa.
My goal is not power, but to help nurture actionable critical consciousness – not simply the “awareness raising” so called – among the new generation of Southeast Asia.
This interview was originally published on the The Citizen on June 24, 2019.