Zin Mar Aung: After 11 years in Burma prison, now leading on reforms

Zin Mar Aung expressing a gesture of support for another political prisoner in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Wikipedia

Most people outside of Burma-Myanmar have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Burmese activist who for 15 years (until 2010) lived under house arrest for her opposition to the military junta. Suu Kyi is now an elected official leading the opposition in the ongoing political reform of Burma (which is what Suu Kyi typically calls the country, due to her critique of the military rulers unilaterally re-naming the country Myanmar).

Zin Mar Aung expressing a gesture of support for another political prisoner in Burma.
Zin Mar Aung expressing a gesture of support for another political prisoner in Burma.
Women’s Leadership Challenge

But Zin Mar Aung may be the one to watch if you’re looking for the best barometer of progress for Bur-Myanmar-ma. Humanosphere caught up with her in Seattle this week.

Zin Mar wasn’t famous like Suu Kyi and wasn’t allowed to remain at home under house arrest. She was thrown in prison at age 22 in 1998 for her role as a student activist critical of the military regime. She spent 11 years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement. Released in 2009, her spirit was hardly broken.

Zin Mar has become a whirlwind force for change – speaking out in favor of further reform of the political system, the military and the judiciary, co-founding the Yangon School of Political Science and forming an organization specifically aimed at empowering women in her country. In 2012, she received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Zin Mar Aung honored as 2012 International Woman of Courage with Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama
Zin Mar Aung honored as 2012 International Woman of Courage with Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama

Zin Mar was in Seattle this week, visiting friends and colleagues – and with many of those in the local Burmese community who fled here following the military crackdown on earlier efforts aimed at driving political change in the country.  Active on many fronts, one of her primary efforts now is to fight for improving women’s rights by encouraging greater participation by women in politics, civil society and throughout all of the features of life in Burma Myanmar. She has started a women’s empowerment organization called RAINFALL (for Re-socialization and Increased Non-discrimination For All) and is seeking financial support for training and organizing.

What were you put in prison for and why were you released?

(Laughs) I don’t know why I was released. They don’t tell you that. I was put in prison because I was part of a student movement that opposed the military government at the time. We had written a statement urging political changes that the military opposed. They put me in solitary confinement for nine of the 11 years and then, just like that, let me go in 2009.

Many in the U.S. are celebrating the democratic reforms in Burma-Myanmar. Should we be celebrating them or are these mostly window dressing?

I would celebrate them, cautiously. In the past, they (officials) did not allow civil society groups or open involvement in politics so it’s getting better. On the other hand, we still need to make it a more democratic society, increase democratic transitions. Our judiciary needs to be improved and made more independent. We need a professional military. More changes are needed to the constitution to make it more democratic. The changes are not institutionalized yet.

Is there greater freedom of expression?

Yes, and yet not enough. An association of journalists recently issued a statement claiming that the laws are still restricting journalists. They said the government is trying to restrict their freedom of expression and ability to hold people accountable.

Why is there so much ethnic conflict?

We do have communal conflicts, mostly between Islam and Buddhism. This didn’t happen before, under military rule. As a Buddhist, it makes me very sad to see this. I think those Buddhists who are advocating violence against Muslims are not so much philosophical Buddhists as traditional Buddhists, or just nationalists. We are seeing this emerging extreme nationalism and it’s a concern. It will be important for the governing body to control this through rule of law. The police need to be empowered and protect people. So far, they are not begin too effective. It’s more complicated than it looks. Behind-the-scenes, there may be some political interests. But the bottom line is we need to live together peacefully.

Why are you focused on women’s issues, women’s empowerment, if the needs for political reform are still so fundamental?

I don’t think we will make progress, or sustainable change, if women are not given active voices and power in this process. Right now, they do not have a strong voice. Some of the same Buddhist monks who are such extreme nationalists are trying to draft an interfaith marriage law, they say to protect race and religion. But what it says is just that Buddhist woman must marry Buddhist men. This is totally opposite the principles of democratic society. It is okay to protest and to express your thoughts but it is not okay to restrict other people’s freedom…

The RAINFALL gender studies group is focused on women’s rights and is aimed at ending discrimination against women. All work as volunteers, we do trainings, weekly and monthly meetings. We have issued statements opposing that marriage law and molre generally we are hoping to organize women’s political empowerment training. We need to get more women in politics. Women need to be involved in these discussions. There are a lot of women workers in industry but their voices not heard.. The military is totally male-dominated. We need more women voices in our country.

Burma has a lot of poor people but the country is relatively wealthy in natural resources. Along with the flood of aid organizations coming in to help in Burma, there are lots of business interests. Any thoughts on this sea change?

Zin Mar visiting Mount Rainier
Zin Mar visiting Mount Rainier

We are getting a lot of foreign investment but we do not have the needed financial institutions or judiciary. There is still a lot of turmoil, such as this emerging extreme nationalism. We need better ruls of law. We need the military to be professionalized. Foreign companies need to know we believe in transparency and accountability. I do not see yet that the government is working on this issue to effectively. We are getting some space in civil society. But it is still challenging.

So should we be optimistic about Burma today, or worried that its reforms will end up just as window dressing as some say has happened in Cambodia with the same people in power saying nice, democratic things but still running the country indifferent to the people’s will?

Yes, we are worried as well not to repeat what has happened in Cambodia. I hope the American government, and the American people, will hold our government accountable. I would like businesses to do the same. Government still does not have the capacity to function well as a state and at the same time civil society is also not fully developed. It is still early days. I would say be cautiously optimistic.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.