ASIA HAND Man with the plan in Myanmar
By Shawn W Crispin
CHIANG MAI - When Myanmar President Thein Sein made his ground-breaking March
30 inaugural address, where the former military general made an unprecedented
call for good governance and counter-corruption reforms, the text of the speech
was lifted from an op-ed published a month before in the local The Voice weekly
The author of the piece, Nay Win Maung, a policy wonk, journalist and outspoken
advocate for reform, is in many ways at the forefront of Myanmar's still
uncertain transition from military to democratic rule. People familiar with the
copy flow say he has ghostwritten much of Thein Sein's reform script, including
cues for his pro-democracy speech to parliament this week, as well as his
high-profile conciliatory meeting last week with opposition leader Aung San Suu
Nay Win Maung's non-governmental organization (NGO), Egress, has submitted over
200 policy papers to the previous and current governments, including
instructional blueprints on how to make the transition from military to
civilian rule. Since last year's general election, he says he has sent policy
advice through a secret police channel to Thein Sein's "West Wing" at
Naypyidaw, Myanmar's newly built reclusive capital.
"Things are getting better," Nay Win Maung said in a recent interview in the
northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where he was delivering a lecture to ethnic
minorities about their rights under the 2008 constitution. "We have received a
lot of requests for policy papers from the president. We're in a position to
shape the new government's policy agenda," he said.
To his proponents, Nay Win Maung represents a hopeful "Third Force" to break
the decades-old political impasse between Myanmar's military generals and the
Aung San Suu Kyi-led political opposition. He has emerged as the darling of
European diplomats, international aid groups and humanitarian dialogue outfits
keen to work for change and reconciliation from inside Myanmar, one of Asia's
poorest and most isolated countries.
To his critics, he is an apologist for military-led incremental change and
front man for plans presented as economic reform to privatize and redistribute
the country's riches among a narrow military-linked elite - of which, they say,
Nay Win Maung is part and parcel. Others see his Egress as a military-built
"Trojan Horse" among unsuspecting European donors who believe they are
supporting organic democratic change from within, but in the process are being
hoodwinked into abandoning their commitments to pro-democracy groups in exile.
"It's a conditional reform process that comes at the expense of people who
should be involved," says David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch's Myanmar
researcher, referring to the 2,100 political prisoners still held behind bars.
"Myanmar needs more pluralism, more voices and more debate, but in large part
Egress has a monopoly on the discussion ... Nay Win Maung is not pushing for
more people to be involved, and it is one of his shortcomings."
To Nay Win Maung, Myanmar's malaise is more a problem of economic mismanagement
than political participation. Several of his policy proposals, he says,
emphasize the need to break from personalized official decision-making and move
towards more institutionalized, technocratic policy-making, concepts he honed
while studying as a visiting world fellow at Yale University in 2004. His Yale
bio says, "Trained as a medical doctor, Maung now sees himself as a policy
critic and leading advocate for economic and political reform in Myanmar."
He's also taken academic interest in the country's international affairs. In
one recent paper, he claims to have proposed a way ahead for bilateral
relations with the United States, which maintains punitive economic and
financial sanctions against the military regime and its business associates. As
a gesture of goodwill, he suggested that military leaders should have signaled
to Washington a week in advance, rather than springing as a surprise, its plan
to release Suu Kyi from house arrest after last year's elections.
Slow and gradual
Nay Win Maung's views on the need for gradual rather than big-bang change have
won him proponents among certain Western governments. Many of them carp about
the slow pace of reform, Suu Kyi's perceived abstinence to compromise, and the
ineffectiveness of the opposition in exile. Egress has emerged as the primary
channel for their redirected donations, and currently reportedly receives
funding and support from the United Kingdom's DFID, Sweden's SIDA and Germany's
Freidrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation, among others.
Registered as a non-profit organization, Egress now operates on a US$1 million
annual budget, according to Nay Win Maung. The organization is divided into
training and research units that often invite foreign academics, including
Westerners from the National University of Singapore, to give (somewhat
ironically) seminars and training on civil society. The outfit also specializes
in journalist training, notably in one of the world's most censored and
repressed media environments.
Others wonder whether Nay Win Maung is the free thinker he portrays, or rather
a slick, foreign-friendly spokesman for the old military order and its desire
to be removed from Western sanctions lists. Egress is backed by the Myanmar
Chamber of Commerce (MCC), which helped to first initiate the organization.
Until recently the MCC was led by Win Myint, a military-linked businessman
blacklisted by the European Union, and is included on the US's sanctions list
due to its association with the previous Than Shwe-led junta.
Exile media groups, meanwhile, point suspiciously to the preference and
privilege Nay Win Maung and Egress appear to receive from authorities, noting
that he is free to travel outside of the country without restriction and is
often willingly quoted in the foreign media without fear of government reprisal
while their in-country reporters operate from underground or are in prison.
"He's being used by both sides, diplomats and the government," says a
Yangon-based journalist who claims to know him well. "He tells the government
'I'll convince the international community the elections were credible.' He
tells the diplomats 'I am your connection to the new era opening in the
country.' ... I think he's misrepresenting the story to both sides."
Nay Win Maung chalks up his special position - or "safety net", as he puts it -
to his family's military pedigree. His father and mother both served as
professors at Myanmar's equivalent of the US's West Point Academy and several
of his father's students have risen to high military ranks. Nay Win Maung
recalls many of them, including current President Thein Sein and Lower House
speaker Thura Shwe Mann, visiting his family home when he was young.
Despite that top brass familiarity, Nay Win Maung claims to be walking on a
razor's edge in his push for reform. Since 2004, government agents have twice
searched his home over articles that appeared in his newspaper, including one
that suggested the military should be under civilian government control.
Between 2000-2004, he says he tried without success to get a proper newspaper
publishing license because he was reportedly on a government "blacklist".
Before that, he helped to establish the Living Color news magazine with Ye
Naing Win, son of former intelligence chief and prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt,
who was overthrown in a 2004 intra-military purge. His The Voice newspaper has
been suspended by government censors on at least 10 occasions, most recently
last year for publishing an unsanctioned photo of Suu Kyi on its front page.
While such claims of personal repression give him street credibility with
democracy-promoting Western donors, Nay Win Maung believes there is new space
for constructive criticism only for those who uphold the 2008 constitution and
the legitimacy of regime-led - rather than revolutionary - political change. He
speaks openly about the corruption that plagued the outgoing junta, which he
attributes to the unchecked discretionary powers of certain wayward military
However, he saves his sharpest criticism for exile media and activists, who he
readily portrays as increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the country's
new dynamic. He says those who believe that regime change through social
upheaval, as attempted during the 2007 "Saffron" revolution, can instantly
achieve democracy have an "overly simplistic" view of how such transitions have
worked throughout history.
"They think if you just give power to the Lady [Suu Kyi], everything will be
fine," he said. "I label them as naive. You need capacity-building before you
can have democracy." Tongue in cheek, he suggests that those dissidents who
favor regime change through upheaval could be held in an "air-conditioned
prison hotel" on the outskirts of Yangon, where they would be free to meet with
foreigners and others operating on the "periphery" of the change underway in
That said, Nay Win Maung is not naive enough to believe recent incremental
changes are irreversible. He contends that Thein Sein's reform drive is already
being challenged by military hardliners who are loathe to accept reforms that
will narrow their past discretionary powers and special privileges. "Thein Sein
means change," says Nay Win Maung, "but it's just as likely the situation ends
in a military coup."
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.
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