When I landed in Rangoon on an independent research trip in July 2012, I did not expect to be sitting across from Win Tin within 24 hours. But that’s precisely what happened. After walking into the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters and asking to speak with Win Tin, also known as Saya (the Wise One), I was referred to the D Wave newspaper offices across town. It was there that I met a senior staffer who rang Win Tin and said that a 20-year-old university student from the United States hoped to speak with him about the reforms taking place in Burma. With Saya on the line, the staffer gave me the phone and a 7:30 pm interview at Win Tin’s home was booked. Just like that.
There is a saying that “luck” is when preparation meets opportunity. The opportunity to interview Win Tin was realized, yet I felt decidedly unprepared. How could I, with only several months of Burma research under my belt, hold my own with the state’s longest-held political prisoner?
My youth and inexperience turned out to be the icebreaker that set a positive tone for the interview. Win Tin was so pleased to see a student taking a risk—leaving the comfort of a library—and getting out into the world where issues come to life. And for nearly two hours, he brought to life the issues that defined Burma’s past, influence its present, and will shape its future, as seen in the following topic-based sound bites from our discussion.
On ensuring the NLD’s long-term viability: “Up to now, we have no form of tangible young leadership. When we choose candidates, our first priority is women. We want to bring up the women’s community. Our second priority is youth, third is ethnic people, and fourth is incumbent leadership.”
On China’s influence in Burma: “There are many people in the military and ruling class who know that it is not very good to be under the Chinese influence. Most of the people in Burma are concerned with this Chinese menace. The Chinese can be quite interfering. They will play very cleverly, deftly, because they are much more developed.”
On the US “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, and what that means for Burma: “The US presence in Asia is very tangible and rather great. So I think the US can help. We don’t know economically what the US effect will be. [The] US nowadays is not the great industrial nation [it once was], but helping democracy in this area [is possible].”
On Burma’s Asean chairmanship in 2014: “I think Burma’s rule [in] Asean will not be that effective. Asean is a machine—it has structure. Politically, we won’t change much.”
On the potential for a democratic Burma: “Burma will be democratic. Maybe there will be no more [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi or NLD or whatever it is, but today the people are much more awakened politically. They are bolder. They have more embracement of their rights—political, human, and so on.”
On Burma’s Constitution: “Even if the NLD wins a landslide victory in 2015, we won’t change the whole Constitution. When we become democratic, we will change parts, not the whole. We can’t change the whole.”
Since I spoke with Win Tin nearly two years ago, Burma’s landscape—politically, ethnically and economically—has been reshaped. The reforms that left me enamored with Burma in 2012 seem like a distant memory today. Now that the low-hanging reform fruit has been picked, President Thein Sein’s government seems unwilling, and unlikely, to go after meaningful political reforms that have benefits beyond the Rangoon nucleus.
Ethnically, the picture has gone from bad to worse. Our July 2012 interview came less than one month after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a group of Muslim men. In the two years since this atrocity, ethno-sectarian violence has erupted, resulting in a human security crisis where, according to Tom Andrews, president of the US-based activist group United to End Genocide, “the building blocks of genocide are in place.” And economically, Burma seems committed to a path of collecting natural resource rents rather than pursuing a holistic economic growth story. The picture is changing, and I am afraid it is for the worse.
As I understand it, Win Tin looked forward to Burma’s bright future, and not back to its dark past, in the time since we last spoke. The next two years will be pivotal for Burma as it is forced to confront many of the challenges Win Tin explored with me, from constitutional revisions ahead of the 2015 elections, to ensuring a meaningful Asean chairmanship. As all this happens, observers must resist the urge to abandon the conventional understanding of “success” and declare Burma a success story. With Win Tin’s death should come a moment of national introspection. Ultimately, Burma will have to write its own story, a task made all the more difficult by Win Tin’s passing.
Reid Lidow is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Southern California where he studies international relations and political science. He has conducted research in Burma on three occasions. He is a Gates Cambridge Scholar-elect and will pursue a master in philosophy degree in development studies at the University of Cambridge beginning this fall.