Burma has much to learn from the life of veteran journalist and pro-democracy activist Win Tin, a man of courage and integrity who passed away on Monday morning while seeking care for several health ailments at a general hospital in Rangoon.
The 84-year-old was a founding member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She called him “a man of courage and integrity” and said he was instrumental in spearheading the country’s democracy movement.
But for any oppressive government, Win Tin was a great enemy. Due to his political activities, the former regime put him in jail for nearly two decades, tortured him, withheld medical treatment and confiscated his home. When they eventually released him in 2008, they demanded that he remain on parole. Still, despite their pressure, he never backed down from his principles.
While in prison, Win Tin created a motto, known in Burmese as Suu Hlut Twe, which laid out a simple and suitable path toward democracy. If Burma’s ruling leaders are even remotely serious about their current reform process, they would do well to take his message to heart.
Suu stands for Suu Kyi and the release of all political prisoners. Hlut, a shortening of the Burmese word Hluttaw, or parliament, refers to the assembly of a national legislature with representatives who were chosen in the 1990 election, which the NLD won by landslide. Twe, the Burmese word for “meeting,” refers to political dialogue between the ruling government and opposition groups.
This motto was quickly embraced by political prisoners and opposition politicians, but calls for Suu Hlut Twe fell on deaf ears within the former military regime, led by dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Today under President Thein Sein, the dictator’s hand-picked leader for a reformist government, some progress has been made on the first of Win Tin’s three principles. Since 2011, nearly 2,000 political prisoners have been released from jail, although some remain behind bars.
The second principle, Hlut, has never fully come to fruition. The results of the 1990 election were nullified by Than Shwe’s regime, which subsequently rigged the 2010 elections to ensure that the majority of seats in Parliament were filled by representatives of the ruling party. Still, free and fair by-elections in 2012 saw Suu Kyi and other NLD members earn 43 seats in the legislature, moving somewhat closer toward Win Tin’s vision.
Political dialogue, the last principle, is the most important. Opposition groups have called repeatedly to negotiate with ruling leaders over the past two decades, with support from the United Nations and others in the international community, but political dialogue has yet to occur. In dealing with ethnic groups, Naypyidaw continues to delay substantive talks about political issues, saying it must first secure a nationwide ceasefire. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s requests for four-way talks with Thein Sein, the army chief and the speaker of Parliament have been ignored, in an embarrassing show of the government’s shaky commitment to reform.
Perhaps we should look elsewhere for advice on these matters. In particular, the Burmese today can learn from South Africa’s struggle to dismantle the apartheid system. During a speech in 2012 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, former South African President F.W. de Klerk shared how he and Nelson Mandela worked to adopt their country’s first fully democratic constitution in late 1993. He offered five lessons for transitioning to democracy.
“First, if you want to break out of the cycle of violence, if you want to lay the foundations for a more prosperous society, if you want to democratize, then the departure point is that leaders must become convinced that fundamental change is necessary,” he said.
The movement to end apartheid eventually won support from both black and white leaders in South Africa. But in Burma, despite some progress over the past three years, the government does not seem convinced that fundamental change is necessary, especially since limited reforms have already won praise from the international community.
“Secondly,” de Klerk said, “any new dispensation will best succeed if it is based on agreements forged in inclusive negotiations. Why do I put the emphasis on ‘inclusive’ negotiations? In most conflicts there are many parties involved in the conflict, with different agendas, with different concerns, with different fears and different aspirations.
“And only if you reach an agreement based on a broad consensus—one that is inclusive of an overwhelming majority of the population, who then say, ‘We take ownership of this new constitution, of the principles of this agreement reached in negotiations’—can you be sure that it will last.”
In a third and related point, the former president said, “Such negotiations, and the agreements reached as the result of negotiation, must accommodate the reasonable concerns and aspirations of the parties to the conflict. This means sacrifice from all sides. It means that the negotiation process should not end with victor and vanquished. The point I want to make is the negotiations must be on a give-and-take basis. Everyone has to have some pain, but everyone also has to get some satisfaction out of the negotiations.”
In Burma, inclusiveness is scant. There is no give and take in negotiations, as the government allows only limited input from opposition and ethnic groups.
Fourth, de Klerk said it was necessary to “strike a balance between unity and diversity.”
“The challenge is how to accommodate diversity, how to manage diversity. And if you want to resolve the problems, if you want to bring peace to those countries in transition, you need to strike a balance between unity and diversity,” he said. “Important minorities need to feel that they are not marginalized, that they are recognized as important constituent parts of the whole.”
This is a complicated issue for Burma, a country comprising many ethnic minority groups which have fought against the government for several decades. The ruling party remains unwilling to establish a federal system, as ethnic groups have requested.
Finally, de Klerk’s spoke about finding a formula for dealing with past political crimes.
“In many countries there is one big stumbling block to successful negotiation. It is one that prevents leaders from taking initiative to change the situation, to move toward democracy, toward greater freedom. It can be summed up in two questions: ‘But if I lose power, will I go to jail? Will there be retribution against me?’” he said.
Burma’s former generals definitely live in a similar state of fear, as do the country’s current military leaders, government officials and lawmakers from the ruling party. In this regard, the option of a mass amnesty might be discussed during political dialogue between the government and opposition groups, following in the footsteps of negotiations in South Africa. Opposition leaders here would likely be willing to let go of desires for retribution in exchange for full inclusion in a genuine reform process.
But again, this can only happen if political dialogue occurs, which brings us back to the third principle of Win Tin’s motto: Twe. Without dialogue, this country will never reach democracy. And unless the ruling leaders, including military leaders, believe that fundamental change is necessary, dialogue will never take place.
Unfortunately, although the ruling leaders who viewed Win Tin as “hard-liner” might shed crocodile tears on his death, they will likely not take his political suggestions seriously. The past three years of reform have offered little indication that the country’s military leaders believe in fundamental change.
As a pragmatist, Win Tin understood this, which is why he did not trust Thein Sein’s government. During an interview at his home in 2012, the veteran journalist told me that leading members of the current government could be seen as “a bunch of thieves.”
He added, “All of us, including journalists, are still in the tunnel. Journalists must break out if there is no exit.”
Living alone for many years, even before his arrest, Win Tin seemed to have just one attachment in life: the fight for democracy. “I will try to dismantle the military dictatorship until my final breath, with all my remaining strength and power,” he told The Irrawaddy before the 2010 elections.
Until the very end, he stayed true to that promise. With his passing, Burma has lost a great man.