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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 26, 2011

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 newspaper.

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 Kyi.

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 officials.

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 Myanmar.

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.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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