FOCUS Burmese democracy campaigner Thaung Htun tells SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY that without a constitution that guarantees people their basic rights, democracy inMyanmar will remain a dream
“In the last 23 years that I lived away from Burma — I missed the landscape, the rivers that I could dive in, the sprawling green rice fields, the fresh fish and prawns, the insects that buzzed about, the frogs croaking in the monsoon, the sound of raindrops on the tin roof of my house…it is a kind of music you know….”
Born in a region of Myanmar bequeathed with natural riches, the Irrawaddy Delta — the rice bowl of the country where rivers abound with fish of many kinds, where stand breathtakingly beautiful mounts like Waphu, where people are either farmers or fishermen — nostalgia easily settled on Thaung Htun in faraway concretised New York City. The Big Apple was his new home after he fled his country to escape the military crackdown in 1988 on pro-democracy student leaders like him. Htun opened an office in NY “just opposite the United Nations office” where till last year, he served as the representative of the now-dissolved Burmese government-in-exile — the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) which lobbied for international support to bring democracy home.
“After the military crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising by the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), I escaped to Thailand. I was with a group of Burmese MPs who won the elections but the military didn’t honour the results,” recalls Htun.
Now that the country has started the process of democratisation and freed their leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, Htun along with four other top dissident leaders of ABSDF was the first to be allowed to enter Myanmar in August this year, reportedly on a 28-day visa.
“It was a grand family reunion. I had lots of fish and prawns, homemade food. My parents died while I was away, my sister and brothers look different now, the nephews and nieces have grown up…I had a lot to catch up with,” he says.
There are certainly beads of hope bobbing in the air there after President Thein Sein said democracy would soon be a reality. Htun notes, “The reformists in the government are trying to create a political space for pro-democracy forces; we are looking at it with great interest. But democracy is not readymade, it takes time to settle down. We have missed 60 years already.”
He was in New Delhi to present two papers, “Parliament, Parties and Power” and “The Transition in Myanmar: Ground Realities” at a seminar on Myanmar co-organised by the Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, on December 5. The soft-spoken activist admits, “Initial reform steps like reinstating citizens’ right to assemble and Press freedom have happened,” but adds, “There are elites from the old regime; a lot depends on how much will they cooperate with the democratic forces.”
What would bring real democracy in Myanmar, “is a constitution that guarantees the basic rights of all citizens,” he underlines. “Since 2000, we have a constitution designed by the military. The structural elements are there, there is separation of power among the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, but the real decisions are taken by the centre. Amendment is required to bring in some sort of decentralisation of power, particularly financial power,” he says.
A prime need in Mynamar now is land reform, to counter “massive rural poverty and rural indebtedness that has happened over the years.”
“Many pro-government forces have grabbed land from farmers. Though the government has now allowed farmers to use their land as an asset and pawn it with government-owned banks to get loans, etc. their land still remains government property. The approach to land reform should not be from the angle of the government but from that of the farmers.”
Htun, Bangkok-based since early this year, has started a think tank — Institute for Peace and Social Justice — and is talking about the need for land reforms in Myanmar at aseminar in New York this week.
The challenge ahead for Suu Kyi is daunting, he says, “considering we had civil war just a year after independence and have no real experience in democracy.” This is where India, “a big democracy, a big neighbour”, would be helpful, not just in helping the ruling party but in creation of a good opposition.” In August, on his arrival in Yangon, he had told reporters that “the political process in Myanmar must include all democratic and ethnic forces both inside and outside the country, as well as the armed forces, so that a lasting peace can prevail.”
He reiterates, “It must be an inclusive process. All those in exile should be invited home; all prisoners of war should be let off. We must ensure equitable development and distribution of wealth among the States. No ethnic State should be left behind.” A part of this challenge is to demilitarise the resistance groups. “Whether to include them in the police force or in the army needs to be decided.”