Friday, August 18, 2017

Coming home

During 20 years of exile, he campaigned for economic sanctions against his own government. He scaled the academic heights of America, and talked to Sri Lanka’s terrorist Tamil Tigers about the possibility of bombing his own country to save it for democracy. From the Myanmar-Thai border to the cloisters of Georgetown University to wartime Afghanistan, he travelled the world.

(Thiri Lu/The Myanmar Times)(Thiri Lu/The Myanmar Times)

Then, in 2012, he came home.

Now director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at the Myanmar Peace Center, U Min Zaw Oo works closely with his former enemies in the Tatmadaw. Sitting across a desk, not a battleline, he spends his days trying to stamp out the remaining embers of Myanmar’s long-burning conflicts.

When 1988’s bloody clashes between soldiers and students roused his strong sense of justice, he, a just-matriculated student, became an opponent of the military regime, though admittedly without understanding of the workings of any political system.

To save him from himself – and the possible consequences of his work with the All Burma Federation of Student Unions – his parents sent him to Singapore to study computer science after matriculation.

But like his grandfather before him, Min Zaw Oo had wanted to apply to the Defence Services Academy. While the 1988 fallout made that unappealing, the call to arms nonetheless proved too strong to resist.

After a year in Singapore, he joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (Southern Wing). He then took up arms against the Tatmadaw along the Thai-Myanmar border, where he spent four years. When asked what pushed a large number of students underground concurrently, without a central guiding leadership to order them to do so, he answered it was not political sentiment but the inspiration of history.

“One of the strongest influences on many of us students at that time was General Aung San and his Thirty Comrades. They secretly went to Japan, underwent military training, returned to their country and won independence. Their example inspired our imagination – about going underground and training, returning under arms, and toppling the dictators,” he said.

The decision made him and his own comrades shut off their sentimentality, he said.

“We never discussed our parents. Not because we didn’t miss them, but because we feared a weakening of will if we started to think in that direction. Nor did we think of our future, our personal ambitions. It was a spontaneous agreement among us.”

In 1997, as the Tatmadaw pressed hard against the ABSDF camps, applications for a scholarship awarded by the United States Information Services to Myanmar rebel youth were making the rounds. There were now two options to pursue, and the former was starting to seem hopeless.

“We thought we could win through guerrilla tactics. But you need materiel, supplies. What do you do if three enemy columns are advancing on you, and you have barely 100 bullets?”

Military reality forced him to revise his approach. As it happened, that was when he was offered a scholarship by the United States Information Services. Within months U Min Zaw Oo was at America’s George Mason University, studying for a bachelor degree, then a master’s in conflict resolution.

While a world away from home, he never forgot where he came from – or why he had left. He kept his ABSDF uniform hung behind the door of his room and, working odd jobs, sent money back to those fighting on the border.

The experience expanded his thinking about the conflict, however, until it was no longer “us against them”. He started seeing his once-faceless opponents as individuals.

“Studying conflict resolution encouraged me to try to understand the other side, not just my own. What is their motivation? What are their worries? I began to think more broadly,” said Min Zaw Oo.

After graduating with his master’s, he returned to the Myanmar-Thai border. But then came a dark incident which set back hopes for many who wished to see national-level negotiations between the military government and the opposition led by NLD’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

While briefly free from house arrest and touring the country, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers were blockaded by an angry mob for several hours at Tabayin, Sagaing Region, also known as Depayin. At least 70 people were killed when the mob attacked, and popular sentiment afterward said it had been a government-backed threat which could easily have escalated into assassination.

U Min Zaw Oo said the incident forced him to re-evaluate the military’s capacity for peaceful change – and his own.

“We met with a guy from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, from Sri Lanka. He asked us, ‘How many child suicide bombers have you trained?’ We said, ‘None.’ He asked, ‘How many millions of dollars can you raise?’ We were satisfied with about US$20,000 a month. They were raising $400 million a year.

“What he taught us was that to do armed revolution or terrorism effectively needs resources. Morale alone is not enough.”

After Depayin, other veterans of the struggle, including exiled activists, paused to take stock of the country’s democratisation and opposition movement as a whole. The same year, on August 30, General Khin Nyunt released the “Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy”, popularly known as the seven-step roadmap.

“We found that our opposition movement was weak in strategic leadership. We saw that our approach would not lead to a democratic transition,” said U Min Zaw Oo. “We decided to seek a strategy to reach the destinations sketched out in the government’s road map.”

That meant going back into the country and working from within.

In 2006, while in America, U Min Zaw Oo was contacted by activists – including U Ne Win Maung, the late chair of the NGO Egress; and U Tin Maung Than – looking to reach out to students in exile. And he continued to study. “I took another master’s in security studies at Georgetown University simultaneously with a PhD in conflict resolution at George Mason. I wanted to understand the military’s point of view on national security,” he said.

At first, some of his old comrades accused him of betrayal for wanting to return, causing an estrangement. But U Min Zaw Oo said there was no choice.

“Their way had not produced results. We were looking at how to produce results in line with our principles,” he said.

While studying, he made his living by writing analyses of some Asian and African countries, including Myanmar, for the American military. His studies complete, in 2010 he moved to Afghanistan to earn money to fund his return home.

“My work in Afghanistan was to research and analyse the sentiments and needs of the Afghan people. After about two years, I joined a USAID project to research elections.”

He also met with Union Minister U Aung Min on the Thai-Myanmar border in 2011 and demanded to continue his work on political reform and freedom of speech.

“We found out that there are those who can understand returnees like us – determined reformers in the government,” he said.

He returned in October 2012. The president granted a mandate to the Myanmar Peace Centre on October 26, and U Aung Min asked U Min Zaw Oo to aid the government’s peacebuilding team.

U Min Zaw Oo saw that without peace, democratisation could not succeed, and that peace required a national reconciliation movement. He felt the government-led peace initiative could be steered to becoming a focal movement for national reconciliation – including with opposition parties.

He first served as a shuttle negotiator between the government and armed groups to bring them to the dialogue table. He now analyses all parties’ sentiments for the organisations involved, providing technical support to the stakeholders designing the peace process.

The criticisms and bitter taunts of “collaborator” have not ceased, but U Min Zaw Oo is undeterred.

“We have progressed along the path of democratic reform, and reform activities have accelerated and gathered strength. As long as I can continue along that path, my conscience is clear.”

Asked how others at the bargaining table see things, he said they are still fighting – not for more power but for the people, and for relevancy in a changed world.

“According to the 2008 constitution, the government comprises the executive branch, parliament and military. The former generals now in government can’t return to the military. Their future depends on what they do in the newly developed political arena. The transition to democracy has become a matter of political survival for them.”