Myanmar Consolidated Media

Tributes flow for a man who put his country first

By Nan Tin Htwe
Volume 31, No. 609
January 9 - 15, 2012

Dr Nay Win Maung speaks at a graduation ceremony at Myanmar Egress.
Pic: Supplied

“I CAN hardly believe that he has left at a time when changes he had fought so hard for were starting to take shape,” read the condolence message from Ms Ana Beatriz Martins, from the EU Delegation in Bangkok.

“It is also a tremendous loss for the country, at a crucial time when the future of reforms rests on the shoulders of a few key personalities like Nay Win Maung’s who had to go far too soon,” it continued.

From the British embassy in Yangon: “An amazing man who achieved an enormous amount for his country.”

Ms Eleanor Nagy, deputy charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Yangon, wrote that Dr Nay Win Maung was “a tireless worker and advocate for reform”.

“Thank you for your efforts to promote peace, democracy and prosperity and closer relations between the United States and Myanmar,” she wrote.

These tributes from the diplomatic community were not unusual. The sudden death of Dr Nay Win Maung, founder of training institute Myanmar Egress, weekly news journal The Voice and magazine Living Color, in the early hours of January 1 from a heart attack rocked the political, media and civil society communities in Myanmar. If the many mourners at his funeral on the afternoon of January 1 were evidence of his influence inside the country, obituaries in the Wall Street Journal and Independent newspapers showed that news of his passing rippled well beyond Myanmar’s borders.

While the tributes were overwhelmingly positive, nobody denied that Dr Nay Win Maung was a man of strong opinions and a controversial, sometimes divisive, figure. Many, particularly in the exiled community, believed he was too close to military and business figures and he was often on the receiving end of quite personal public attacks.

His support for the 2008 constitution and the 2010 election when many were advocating a boycott, only added to these perceptions. However, much of the criticism died down in 2011 as reforms in Myanmar, brought about by the government he advocated for, gathered pace.

But there was some consensus last week that Dr Nay Win Maung legacy would be his work at Myanmar Egress, which he co-founded in 2006. The institute became the first in Myanmar to offer courses on topics such as politics and media and has trained more than 30,000 students.

U Tin Maung Thann, vice chairman of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation and one of seven founders of Egress, said the question, “Who is Dr Nay Win Maung?” would be answered by his immense contribution to Myanmar society.

“Some people say that he was a controversial figure. I just want to say that the things he did show who he was,” he said.

“[Egress] happened because of him. The others founders including me were brought together because of him.”

Addressing the criticism that Dr Nay Win Maung was too close to the government and business community, U Tin Maung Thann said that “people had no idea how much he had to struggle financially”.

U Tin Maung Thann conceded that the loss of Dr Nay Win Maung would have an impact on Egress but said it would continue with its present role.

“This is a loss not only for Myanmar Egress but also for Myanmar society,” he said. “He always gave time to everyone for nation building or politics and he treated everyone equally. For him, it didn’t matter if you were young old, important or not.”

Ko Kyaw Thu, a fellow at the Oxford-based Reuters Institute for Journalism who wrote his masters thesis on Egress, said the organisation had played a “crucial role in giving political education to the younger generations in a country where there was previously no formal institutions that taught political sciences”.

“Despite the fact that Dr Nay Win Maung has passed away, I am sure that Myanmar Egress will continue to work for the socio-economic development of the country and fulfill his vision,” he said.

U Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice, said Dr Nay Win Maung was like a brother.

“I learned a lot from him. I have become who I am today because of him and his guidance.

“Everything he did was for Myanmar, not for himself. He was under much pressure and cigarettes were his only way out. Sometimes he had no money to buy a pack [of cigarettes] and no money to buy gifts for his students. People do not know about that.”

Professor Robert Taylor, a regular guest lecturer at Egress, paid tribute to “a creative and courageous thinker” who nurtured the country’s youth.

“He recognised the necessity for stability and evolution, consolidation and change. His family and friends can be proud of his achievements. His sudden death creates a large void in the emerging political landscape. It was an honour and a privilege to have known him,” he told The Myanmar Times by email.

Many, including some of his critics, paid tribute to Dr Nay Win Maung’s patriotism and love for his country.

“Whenever we met in Thailand he often looked around and talked about how he wanted his country to develop like Thailand. He was always upset at the opportunities that Myanmar has missed over the years,” said Aung Naing Oo from the Vahu Development Institute. “He was a man of vision, a man of his words, a man who was not afraid to take an unusual and bold path to bring his country to freedom and development. And when we meet his colleagues in the near future, he will be sorely missed … but the great work he did will be carried on.”

Historian and author Dr Thant Myint-U told The Myanmar Times that Dr Nay Win Maung’s death was a “tremendous blow” for the country and he would be widely mourned, particularly by his many former students.

“It would be a loss for the country at any time, but coming at this critical moment, it’s a loss Myanmar can really not afford,” he said. “I think it’s only when the history of this period is written, perhaps 10 or 20 years from now, that people will really understand the pivotal and often behind the scenes role that Ko Nay Win Maung played to help bring Myanmar forward over these past many months.”

Dr Thant Myint-U said also paid tribute to the Egress founder’s “great intellectual integrity and moral courage”.

“He always said what he believed and worked selflessly towards what he thought was best for the country, with no apparent concern for his image or reputation.

“One only has to see the reaction of his hundreds of students, at his funeral and memorial, to understand how much he meant to many of this country’s best young leaders.”

Ma Seng Pan, a 26-year-old Kachin woman working for a local non-government organisation, met Dr Nay Win Maung after attending a three-hour workshop on the 2008 constitution at Egress. She said she was always impressed by the strength of his encouragement and support for young people.

“He told me that everyone should understand about the constitution and that if people wanted he would even be willing to go from one-to-one teaching them about it,” she said.

“If people support your work, it’s great. But when someone can continue their works under those kinds of attacks, it’s extraordinary.”

Born in 1962 in Mandalay Region, Dr Nay Win Maung was the son a lecturer at the Defense Services Academy. He Graduated from University of Medicine 1 Yangon in 1988 but embarked on a career in business before being accepted into Yale University’s World Fellows Program in 2004. It was after this that he helped found Egress, and it was fitting that the institute hosted a memorial on January 2 that allowed friends, colleagues and former students to mark his passing.

His public call to vote in the 2010 election was prominently on display at the memorial with the sign “I Vote”, which he created in the lead up to the poll. Also on show was an interview he gave to The Ray of Light before the election that never made it passed the censorship board.

But a more recent contribution, which may prove to be more important in the long term, was his attempts to broker peace between the government and armed ethnic insurgent groups.

The memorial included photos of Dr Nay Win Maung with ethnic leaders from the Karen National Union, Shan State Army-South and New Mon State Party. Taken in the weeks before his death, they stood as testament to his resolve to tackle the country’s most difficult and deep-seated issues.

“I came here as you invited all the ethnics to learn about politics. The day I arrived was the day Saya Dr Nay Win Maung gave his life for the country. I’ve never seen you but I respect your morality,” read one of the condolence messages, signed by “Palaung ethnic Win Khaing”.

“It is a great loss for our democratic country, which has just started to recognise all the ethnic minorities,” U Oo Hla Saw from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party wrote.

U Aung Min, the Minister for Railways Transportation who was also involved in the peace discussions, pledged to continue the work that Dr Nay Win Maung had helped start. “You worked for the country till your last minute,” he wrote. “Now we have the light of success but lots of things are still to be done. We have to continue.”

– Additional reporting by Thomas Kean