English edition editor of The Irawaddy Kyaw Zwa Moe talks about Myanmar today and why he believes in constitutional liberalism
“I DIDN’T want to be a journalist, but of course I didn’t want to be a political prisoner either,” says editor and author Kyaw Zwa Moe laughing. “But I just did what I believed I should do.”
During a chat at the launch of his book “The Cell, Exile the New Burma”, the 47-year-old writer recalls how he “fell in love with journalism” after fleeing his home country in 2001 and joining the then-Chiang Mai-based The Irrawaddy magazine, where he continues to be the English edition editor.
Indeed, it is both ironic and apt that Kyaw Zwa should end up being a journalist after all the reading and hiding of books and pens inside the prison cells he had to call home for eight years. He was arrested at 19 for his role in August 8, 1988 pro-democracy uprising, went into exile in Thailand after his release and returned to Myanmar, as Burma is officially known today, in 2013.
Kyaw Zwa Moe /courtesy of Kyaw Zwa Moe
Unlike a typical memoir, ’The Cell, Exile and New Burma” is both personal and impersonal. The 32 articles tell stories all too common to too many people until the country started on the bumpy journey of political transition in 2011. Indeed, the book’s title reflects how a prison cell and exile were common experiences for individuals like Kyaw Zwa, as well as Myanmar’s past and present leaders. “If we want to understand the current political situation, we cannot get rid of these two places,” he says.
Kyaw Zwa talks about the unfinished story of Myanmar’s democratic transition, which has produced “kind of a democracy”. He discusses the perilous balance between democracy and a return to the past – and how a constitution that protects the military’s role is a fundamental handicap that weakens civilian governance despite the elections that put the National League of Democracy-led government in place in 2016.
Kyaw Zwa Moe, right, talks during the book launch with Johanna Son.
I’VE SEEN A FEW DESCRIPTIONS CALLING YOUR BOOK “MEMOIRS”, BUT THEY’RE NOT, NOT REALLY. WHY A COLLECTION OF STORIES, NOT PERSONAL MEMOIRS?
[After I left Burma], I met many other people. All of them were encouraging me to write a memoir. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t do it. Luckily, one year after I was released from the prison, I joined The Irrawaddy. I didn’t intend to be a journalist but after I joined and I started writing the stories, news reports and later on analysis, documentaries, I really fell in love with journalism. So let’s say I have been busy with daily news reports all the time.
THE FIRST PART OF THE BOOK IS MORE PERSONAL. BUT WORKING ON THIS PROJECT REQUIRED YOU TO RELIVE THE TRAUMA. WAS THAT PART OF THE REASON WHY IT TOOK YOU SO LONG?
I don’t really have a trauma, even though I spent eight years in prison. But of course, we always face a difficult time whenever we recall something, something sad or something bad from the past. One of the examples of a bad incident was when my mother, who was 49 at that time, was hit by a military vehicle when I was in prison. But that was really coincidence. For anyone who wants to take something subjectively or personally, I should have hated the military and the military leader as well. But to me, [not writing a book earlier] was not simply because of that but because I couldn’t really focus on the book project. But I had 700, 800 stories all related to the pro-democracy movement, so I tried to repackage these into this book. That, I think, is more interesting than my memoirs.
HOW WAS IT FOR YOU TO KNOW THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO GO BACK HOME? THERE WAS A TIME IN HISTORY WHEN WE THOUGHT THAT TWO COUNTRIES WOULD NEVER CHANGE – MYANMAR AND NORTH KOREA.
I didn’t know when I could go back, but since I joined the movement in 1988, when I was 16 years old, I think I was always optimistic. Even in front of the soldiers, at the forefront of the student protests, even when I tried to run away from the gunshots, I was always optimistic. When I was arrested and sentenced to 10 years, I knew that I would be released one day. I was never depressed. So I tried to do something even when I was forced to be in prison. That’s the type of person I think I am now. Every bit of stationery, every piece of paper, pencil, pen, was illegal in the cell. I tried to smuggle these goods into my cell, because I was so keen to learn something.
THE BOOK COVERS A LOT OF THE PAST, AND MUCH OF THE RECENT PAST. WHAT DO YOU THINK BURMA’S PAST CAN TEACH US ABOUT THE FUTURE? WHAT DID THE COUNTRY’S PAST TEACH IT?
In 1988, our young students started the 1988 pro-democracy movement on the streets demanding democracy. We can see that we have democracy because the government we have now was elected by the people in 2015. It is kind of a democracy. Basically, democracy means that you get the government that you voted for. We got a democracy that’s not perfect at all. But now that is a real example for all of us, because democracy alone is not enough. Democracy doesn’t come with civil rights, equality, autonomy or prosperity. Democracy is just the right to vote for a party you like. Democracy should come with constitutional liberalism, which is even more important or at least equally important. Constitutional liberalism is to get civil rights, to get your individual right and to get the rule of law – constitution is the key.
DO YOU THINK MYANMAR IS A MISUNDERSTOOD COUNTRY, OR DO PEOPLE OUTSIDE EXPECT TOO MUCH OF IT?
I think so. I would say that the country is complex in all of its layers. Sometimes we Burmese don’t understand what is going on, but at the same time I would say that the leadership doesn’t really have a vision of how to solve a lot of problems in our country.
YOU SAID THAT YOU ARE AN OPTIMIST, BUT ALSO A PRAGMATIST. WHAT ARE THE THREE TOP CHALLENGES THAT MYANMAR NEEDS TO ADDRESS?
Choosing even three is very difficult. Don’t forget that our Big Brother, the military, is still around. And they officially get 25 per cent of the seats in parliament without even standing in the election. There are three posts occupied by the military, according to the constitution. They are defence minister, home affairs minister, the border affairs minister, and of course, the commander-in-chief, who has the power to appoint those ministers. So, constitutionally, the government cannot purge those three ministers. Politically, the government cannot really purge the commander-in-chief either. So they are on top, so far. It’s quite difficult but the constitution is one of the main problems in our country. But even within that limited situation, the government, or we, all of us, can have our own |space to do more and more in terms of pushing the boundaries. Now, we say Myanmar is in democratic transition. If I have to define that, democratic transition means to dismantle the military from politics. This is very delicate in our country, very delicate.
MAYBE THAT’S WHY THE BOOK USES ‘EVOLUTION’ INSTEAD OF REVOLUTION? IT’S NOT A GOOD TIME FOR DEMOCRACY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA. ARE THERE LESSONS THE REST OF US CAN LEARN FROM MYANMAR?
I joined the pro-democracy movement in 1988, 30 years back. Now, it is 2018. So we just started. We thought that we could get democracy in a few years, in the following years. I didn’t know twhen I joined the movement, that democracy is a process, to build a nation, or to rebuild a nation, and to restructure the entire nation’s society with its millions of people. So I think it will take time; it is very difficult. I think if you are optimistic, if you are positive, it’s not too bad. Look at the United States - that’s why we can learn from other countries as well.
Johanna Son is editor/founder of the Reporting ASEAN series (www.AseanNews.net).
Myanmar and more
Copies of ‘The Cell, Exile and the New Burma’, are available by writing to email@example.com.