Last September, Moe Thee Zun returned to Burma for the first time in 25 years, part of a wave of exiles coming home against a backdrop of tentative government steps towards openness and democracy. Forced abroad due to his leading role in the student-led uprising against military rule, he spent years fighting government forces in the jungles along Burma’s eastern border with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) before migrating to the United States in 2001. Since his return, he has turned his attention to joining Burma’s formal political system through the 2015 elections. He sat down with DVB’s Rangoon correspondent, Alex Bookbinder, to discuss his political ambitions and the future of Burmese democracy.
Q: Now that you’re back in Burma, what is on your agenda?
A: I plan to register the Democratic Party for a New Society [which he co-founded in 1988] as a political party here, and I want to join the election in 2015. That’s one of my major duties here. My [American citizenship] is having a huge effect, because I just applied for my ID card. I’m already a Burmese citizen – they never stripped me of it – and so I’m asking them to issue me an ID card again. Once I have my ID card, I can join the political movement and found the political party again.
Q: Do you think the approach you took in 1988 – taking up arms against the military and fighting the government – was the right thing to do, given how you are now attempting to embrace the formal political system?
A: Of course. At the time, we had no other options. I founded the political party and wanted to solve political problems through political means, but the government showed, at the time, no option for our political party to participate. They put us under a lot of pressure, and arrested a lot of party members and supporters, and tried to threaten me as well. I managed to avoid arrest, and I joined the armed revolutionaries 25 years ago.
Q: Did the presence of the students, fighting alongside the ethnic armed groups, help build trust?
A: The role played by the ABSDF to build trust between the Burman majority and ethnic minorities was very effective, and we’re very proud and happy to see the results of national reconciliation. Before the ABSDF joined with the ethnics, a lot of Burmese political parties didn’t recognise federalism. The ABSDF was the first organisation to embrace federalism for the future of Burma. Now, you can see a lot of people talking about federalism – Burmese political parties in the cities inside [away from the border areas where the ABSDF operated]. Also, the ABSDF sent members on international delegations to support our democracy movement. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders were under arrest, so only the ABSDF was on the outside. Even though we didn’t have many resources, we tried to put Burma on the international agenda, and saw some results.
Q: The figures who came out of 88 – yourself, the 88 Generation Students, the NLD – are very divided. What are the reasons for this and how can it be addressed? Do you want to unite?
A: The regime didn’t divide us – we divided ourselves. After 20 years away from each other, we have problems building trust among ourselves. There are big differences of opinion. For example, recent religious issues and crises – we have our own opinion and they have their own perspective. We need cooperation and coordination between our democratic camps – that’s what we hope will happen, that we’ll be able to take joint action to achieve some political goals, such as reforming the 2008 constitution.
Some of the leaders are also, I think, not focused on human rights and democracy themselves. We tell them that whenever we meet them, and there’s still a difference in opinion. It’s a stressful situation when it comes to ethnic issues and religious issues. I want to see a more democratic approach – one that protects the rights and security of citizens, rather than state security and chauvinism. I hope they’ll come back to our side. If we can’t put up a united front, we won’t reach our goals. We have to cooperate with each other based on democratic norms and values.
Q: The whole notion of Rohingya identity and citizenship has driven a wedge through Burma’s democracy movement. As these figures have ostensibly dedicated their lives to promoting human rights and democracy, why do they make an exception when it comes to the Rohingya?
A: They’re confusing democracy with nationalism and racism. I see the Rohingya issue – or whatever issue – as an immigration issue. If we can check immigration status, it’s not an issue that should become an issue of nationalism. Developed countries have immigration issues, right? They should approach these issues through the law. If Burma is a democratic country, we have to give democratic and human rights for anybody who enters Burma. We can’t forget that, at ground level.
There are millions of Burmese living illegally in Thailand, Malaysia, etc. These are immigration issues and we have to live under their laws. Some Rohingya enter Burma illegally, and some were already born here. We have to check. If they are born here and have lived here for a long time, we have to grant them citizenship. We have to treat all people like humans. If some people violate Burma’s immigration laws, ok, we can send them back. The solution is for the government to act in a democratic way and work to improve immigration regulations. It’s not a big deal.
Q: Some “crony” businessmen have gotten close to activists and opposition politicians over the past year, such as Zaw Zaw’s presence at the 88 Generation Silver Jubilee and Tay Za’s donation to the NLD’s education fund. Now that there’s all this money floating around, how does it impact the effectiveness and quality of activists’ work?
A: After 2010, activists have hit hard economic times. They can’t support their activities themselves to achieve their goals. The government needs to grant political and civil institutions funding, but it denies them [funding]. The government now recognises that democratic forces are necessary for democratisation, and at that point some cronies and businessmen got involved and provided donations. In some ways, it’s necessary. In 1988, we received funding from some rich people. But we used it for the good of the people and the movement. From my point of view, democratic institutions can use the funding from cronies who donate sincerely – not ones with political goals. To use their funds for education, to use them for political activities, for reconciliation between diverse groups. But cronies shouldn’t use activists for their own personal platforms.
Q: You’re very critical of land issues, for one. But this is something a lot of these businessmen are deeply involved in – they steal land, or they benefit from military land grabs. How will the cronies fit into a democratic system if they don’t play by democratic rules?
A: The government should be aware of the crisis situation when it comes to land in Burma, and take it very seriously. It is dangerous, what they’re doing and what’s happening right now. Land is a vital resource for the general public. Millions of people have lost their land, and the peace process is also impacted by land issues. The government needs to come up with a land tenure policy and distribute the land, otherwise people cannot survive. It will become a headache for the government. The government’s plan is mostly geared towards courting outside support and outside investment. But their expectations have not been met.
Q: The government is pushing for a nationwide ceasefire now. Do you think this is a valuable exercise?
A: It seems like the government wants peace, but the army is reluctant. So the government should push the army to accept the fact that peace is necessary for democratization, as well as power sharing and resource sharing. The government shares the resources with the cronies, which will make things difficult for reconciliation. Why doesn’t the government share the power and resources with the Karen people, for example? Let’s say the Karen people get 40 percent of the resources in the interest of long-term sustainability, and the government 60 percent. I think they’d come to an agreement. But in reality, the government gives 90 percent to their cronies. So how will they be able to reconcile with the Karen? The Kachin?
Of course, the nationwide ceasefire is valuable, if the government can make it happen in a practical sense. The government should review all its past policies. It’s not a perfect solution for the country, but time is running out for both the government and the opposition. It’s time to cooperate and listen to different suggestions and have a diversity of opinion.