The NI Interview
issue 313 - June 1999
The NI Interview
Ruth Abrahamson chats with Burma's Prime-Minister-in-Exile
Trim, poised and precise, Sein Win is a wanted man back home in Burma. As are his brother and three cousins – all of them doing time for opposing the iron-fisted military dictatorship which runs their homeland. He grins as he recalls an encounter with a Burmese soldier who had escaped from prison where he had been tortured for defecting. ‘And I’m not even a politician,’ the young man quipped.
Sein Win is a politician. His crime was to get democratically elected in Burma in 1990 when he was just 47. It was the first time the military junta had allowed citizens to vote since it seized power in a 1962 coup. Sein Win’s National League for Democracy (NLD) colleagues, led by another cousin, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. Soon afterwards the junta, then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), began to arrest election winners. It was obvious that the military had no intention of loosening its grip.
Those elected representatives who avoided imprisonment then hatched a plan to form an opposition government outside the country. They decided to meet secretly across the Thai border in an area controlled by the ethnic Karen who also opposed the Burmese regime.
When Sein Win left home he had no idea when he would next see his wife, then pregnant with their first child. From the capital, Rangoon, he snuck on to a bus to the southern part of the country. There, with the help of the local Mon people, he detoured past the junta’s military checkpoints and waited for dark to board a small boat.
On the boat’s port side lay open coastline: a perfect target for ambush from the shore. Starboard: open sea, where naval gunners lay in wait. ‘We had to be silent all night,’ recalls Sein Win. ‘And I am not a swimmer.’
Back on land, the diminutive mathematics professor spent five days wading through jungle streams and climbing mountains, eventually reaching Manerplaw in Thailand. There he was appointed Prime-Minister-in-Exile before he and his pro-democracy colleagues scattered. Sein Win now lives in Washington DC while his cabinet is sprinkled through India, Thailand, Australia and the United States.
I met the 55-year-old Hamburg University graduate in Vancouver, another stop on his constant crusade to tell the world that Burma’s regime still refuses to negotiate a return to civilian rule.
Repression ‘of the highest degree’ continues. Since last August, says Sein Win, most NLD representatives who were still free have been forced to resign. Some were jailed. Others were told their land would be seized, leaving their families without food. ‘Where pro-democracy advocates might be willing to go to jail, they may not be as willing to let their families starve,’ says Sein Win. Even so he believes that democracy can soon be restored to Burma. For one thing, the quality of life in one of the world’s poorest countries is ‘getting worse’. And that spells trouble for the military regime which now calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Sein Win likens the situation to 1988 when spiralling inflation sparked civil unrest and more than 10,000 civilians were killed in peaceful demonstrations. Another 20,000 fled the country. Since then inflation has skyrocketed. Today, the black-market exchange rate for the US dollar is 60 times higher than the SPDC’s so-called official rate. ‘It was bad then,’ says Sein Win, ‘but today it is almost intolerable. The average urban worker can’t even afford two meals a day.’ Meanwhile the military lives lavishly, selling off the country’s rich natural resources to international companies – including teak forests, gems and oil.
Another reason for optimism is the growing international attention paid to Burma. Governments in Canada, Australia, the US and the European Union are more open to accepting Burmese refugees and there is increasing unity around imposing economic sanctions. Sein Win says the next step is for the United Nations to take action on its 1992 resolution calling for the protection of human rights and the transfer of power to a civilian government.
‘There is pressure from abroad on the military but we need even more,’ he stresses. Especially now. ‘The regime is rife with corruption and it can’t even manage its own battalions. It is so desperately short of cash that economic sanctions could cripple the military.’
He also rejects the argument that foreign investment will boost the economy and help those most in need. ‘It is the generals who make the money,’ he laments. ‘They just use it to build up the army.’ Without international investment Sein Win argues that the junta would not be able to maintain its forces or buy more weapons.
So, despite a gruelling schedule that involves constant travel and little personal space, Sein Win has no plans to quit his campaign for freedom in Burma. Not yet anyway.
‘Sometimes I’m tired and want a holiday,’ he says. ‘But if you start a movement you can never give it up unless you get results. Besides, my problems are nothing compared to those still back home.’