Fri 30 Dec 2011
Filed under: Inside Burma
In a year that saw many unexpected developments in Burma, some names stand out among those who made the news in 2011. Below is a list of just some of those who played an important role in the past year, including some who may be even more newsworthy in the year ahead.
Min Ko Naing
“On my son’s birthday, many people told me: ‘You no longer own your son. He now belongs to the nation,’” said the mother of Min Ko Naing, an 88 Generation Students group leader who is currently serving a 65-year sentence for his political activities. Known for his honesty and humility, Min Ko Naing was arrested and imprisoned for his role in organizing protests against dramatic fuel price hikes in July 2007 that later led to the Saffron Revolution. In fact, since 1989, he has spent only two years outside prison. But despite being held for so long behind bars, Min Ko Naing has unwittingly become a powerful symbol of freedom and courage. For his captors, the military regime, he is a bird of freedom that must be kept in a cage. Many Burmese consider Min Ko Naing the most inspiring leader in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi
In her tumultuous role as leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, has often been portrayed as an idealistic figure lecturing a mix of democratic values and theories of non-violence to the masses of Burma. Over the years, she has dared to criticize the military establishment—though mostly by innuendo. But since her freedom from house arrest in November, Suu Kyi has markedly toned down her anti-government rhetoric and taken a more pragmatic stance by publicly supporting recent overtures by the new government. It appears that the country’s rulers are trying to co-opt her to gain international and domestic acceptance for their new parliamentary system, and she has now decided to join the game and play a formal political role under their terms. “We may not achieve 100 percent of what we are hoping for, but we have to take a risk at the appropriate time,” she explained to party followers.
Armed conflict continues unabated between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north. Fifty-year-old Gen. S. Gun Maw is the deputy military chief of the KIA, a fearsome militia of 10,000 troops that operates along the Sino-Burmese border. Since intense fighting resumed in June after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire, Gun Maw has emerged as one of the most influential leaders in the KIA and its civilian administration, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which he led in two rounds of negotiations with government representatives in 2011. A physics graduate from Mandalay University, Gun Maw was recruited by the KIA when he was a high school student and soon grew into an outstanding commando. He says “the resolution of ethnic conflict is as important as the democratic struggle.”
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma on Nov. 30, she became the first US diplomat of her rank to visit the country in more than 50 years. Since the Obama administration adopted its policy of “constructively engaging” the Burmese leadership while maintaining sanctions, Clinton has consistently delivered the firm message that the US is willing to support Burma in its efforts to reform and become more democratic, but it will only ease or lift sanctions when meaningful and irreversible change has taken place. This was what she told President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, before flying to Rangoon to meet pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time. Addressing reporters after her meeting with Suu Kyi, Clinton said, “We want to work with you [the Burmese government leaders] as you further democratic changes, as you release all political prisoners, as you begin the … difficult but necessary process of ending ethnic conflicts that have gone on far too long, as you hold elections that are free and fair and credible.”
Pho Phyu (aka Yan Naing Aung) is a lawyer who took on the cause of Burmese farmers who had their land confiscated. He was arrested and sent to jail in 2009 while he worked on a 5,000-acre confiscation case in Natmauk Township in Magway Division. “Before the election last year, there were attempts to sow discord among the farmers and myself, and the farmers were warned not to approach me,” he said. “The situation seems to be better since the election,” he added, despite being briefly detained again in 2011 for his role in small-scale protests by displaced farmers. More recently, Phyo Phyu has concentrated on another issue—Burma’s child soldiers.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa traveled to Burma in November after delaying a planned trip in May due to concerns over the country’s human rights record. The purpose of his visit was to assess whether Burma’s new government was ready to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014. Naypyidaw made the request soon after President Thein Sein assumed power in March, but many activists and parliamentarians in the region were strongly opposed, saying that “reforms” by Burma’s new quasi-civilian government were too superficial to justify the move. However, after meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of other political parties, Natalegawa said he backed Burma’s bid for a regional leadership role. The decision to grant the chairmanship to Burma, made with the unanimous support of Asean leaders, was announced soon after his trip in Bali, where Indonesia, the bloc’s current chairman, hosted the annual Asean Summit.
Tomás Ojea Quintana
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana has played a significant role in exposing the military’s role in human rights abuses in ethnic areas. In April 2010, he called for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Burmese government troops against ethnic villagers. After being repeatedly denied permission to return to country, he made a visit to Burma in August for talks with both government and opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. His proposed CoI is now supported by the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several EU nations.
Saw Lah Pwe
A year after fighting government forces on the battlefield, Brig-Gen Saw Lah Pwe (aka Na Kham Mwe), the head of the breakaway Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) Brigade 5, signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese authorities in Pa-an, the capital of Karen State, on Nov. 7. The truce came exactly one year to the day after troops under his command seized control of Burmese army positions in the Thai-Burmese border town of Myawaddy, resulting in clashes that forced more than 20,000 residents to flee and seek temporary refuge across the border in Mae Sot. Brigade 5 remains the only unit of the DKBA that has refused to accede to Naypyidaw’s border guard force (BGF) plan. Commanding about 1,000 fighters, Saw Lah Pwe said that joining the BGF would be tantamount to surrender.
Ross Dunkley, the 55-year-old founder and editor of The Myanmar Times newspaper, was arrested on Feb. 10 on charges of assaulting, drugging and detaining a Burmese woman identified by press reports as a prostitute. He denied the accusations, which his alleged victim later attempted to withdraw, but was held in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison until his release in late March on five million kyat (about $6,500) bail. On June 30, he was found guilty of the first charge and sentenced to a month in prison, but released on time served. While in detention, he experienced a side of life in Burma that his newspaper never focused on. “A lot of people in there probably shouldn’t be there. We’ve got young kids, young adults who are going to jail for five to 10 years for small drug offenses. You’ve got a lot of weak and sick people in there, but overall, I cannot complain,” he told Radio Australia. Dunkley’s experience also shed light on the perils of doing business in Burma: His arrest coincided with intense negotiations between him and his government-linked Burmese partners about the publication’s future management, strategy and ownership. Days after his arrest, Tin Tun Oo, Dunkley’s local partner, assumed his position as chief executive of the local-foreign joint venture.
“I lived and breathed her for the last four years,” said Michelle Yeoh, the 49-year-old Malaysian actress best known for starring in action films, describing how she prepared for her latest role as Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in French director Luc Besson’s biopic, “The Lady.” Yeoh, who was a Bond girl in “Tomorrow Never Dies” and a martial arts expert in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is decidedly more low-key as Suu Kyi. But off-screen, she made headlines by being refused entry into Burma in June, despite—or perhaps because of—an earlier successful visit to the country to meet and spend time with Suu Kyi for the movie in December 2010. She was stopped by immigration officers at the airport in Rangoon and sent back on the first available flight. In her first comment on her deportation, Yeoh said that she was “shocked and terribly saddened by the action.” In a statement, she said, “I continue to cherish hopes to see this country continue its progress toward peace and democracy and to be able to return soon.”
About three months after a “new” government led by former general Thein Sein was formed in late March, Buddhist abbot Ashin Nyanissara, known as Thidagu Sayadaw, delivered an address about the importance of unity in the country at the opening ceremony of the new Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, located in the outskirts of Rangoon. At a five-day opening ceremony from June 16 to 20, attended by senior abbots, government officials, diplomats, politicians, social workers and private donors, the 74 year-old senior abbot said, “The message of the Buddha is absolute tolerance.” He therefore urged “all national leaders and religious leaders” to remove the “evil spirits” of intolerance. To end conflict, he said, the Buddha emphatically stated that you should try to convert your mind from selfishness to selflessness, from jealousy to joy, from evil to nobility. Ashin Nyanissara became popular after the 1988 popular uprising due to his famous Dhamma talk about the 10 rules that rulers must abide by. The senior monk has also been active in humanitarian projects, especially helping survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which hit the Irrawaddy Delta region in May 2008.
Ye Lwin, 64, the bassist of the popular Burmese rock band Medium Wave, enjoyed a surge in popularity in 2011. Two years after being released from detention for his involvement in the 2007 Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution, he joined forces with his songwriting colleagues Ne Win and Thar Htwe to form a new band, Vertical Vibration, to reprise some of their much-admired hits from the 1980s and 90s. His fans, including former political prisoners, welcomed the chance to listen to some of their old favorites, which gave them love, strength and answers to the questions of life. To Burma’s dictators, however, the sound of Ye Lwin’s music has been anything but sweet. Even early on in his career, Ye Lwin ran afoul of the military authorities. In the early 1970s, he was playing with his band at a party in Inya Lake Hotel when the tempestuous late dictator Ne Win stormed in. Infuriated by the song that was playing in the banquet hall, the military strongman kicked over the drums and screamed at the audience for reveling in the music. Ye Lwin said, “I think he might have gotten the wrong impression about the song we were playing. It was ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song.’” Maybe Ne Win got the message.
When President Thein Sein assembled his team of political, economic and legal advisers soon after forming a new government in March, one name stood out: U Myint, the head of his economic board of advisers. The Berkeley-educated economist and long-time friend of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is respected by government officials and members of the opposition alike, making him instrumental in subsequent efforts to bring the two sides together for tentative talks. Shortly before he was appointed as a presidential adviser, U Myint appeared at a benefit concert arranged by the National League for Democracy (NLD) for HIV/AIDS patients, where he played alongside Suu Kyi’s son, Kim Aris. For several years, he has played a role in efforts to educate Burma’s ruling generals and the NLD, as well as leading activists like Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, about much-needed economic reforms. But his mission is not strictly economic: his idea is to bridge the political divide by creating a shared understanding of what Burma needs to achieve lasting progress. If the detente witnessed over the past year pans out, U Myint can take much of the credit.
Minister of Electric Power-1 Zaw Min is known as one of the hardliners of Burma’s new government. After holding the same ministerial post in the former junta, he resigned from the military to keep his old job, which included being a major player in plans to build a massive, Chinese-backed hydroelectric power dam at Myitsone in Kachin State. In response to growing opposition to the project, he infamously described the campaign to stop the dam as a “disease” and vowed not to halt it at any cost. “We will go on with the project. We will never go back,” he told reporters in Naypyidaw on Sept 10. By the end of the month, however, President Thein Sein had decided to suspend the Myitsone project—winning accolades from both the Burmese public and the international community. Zaw Min’s notoriety is not confined to his support for controversial mega-projects. He has also been accused by former counterintelligence officer Aung Lynn Htut of playing a key role in the summary execution of 81 innocent civilians, including women and children, on Christie Island, off the far southern coast of Burma, in 1998.
Aung Lynn Htut
When Burma’s former junta ousted spy chief Gen Khin Nyunt and purged the ranks of his Military Intelligence Services in 2004, Aung Lynn Htut, a former counterintelligence officer, was serving as the deputy head of mission at the Burmese Embassy in Washington. Prompted by events back home, he decided to defect to the US, bringing with him an extensive knowledge of classified documents and inside information about senior members of the ruling regime. Through articles written for The Irrawaddy and other media outlets, he has revealed previously unknown details about Burmese military affairs, Burma’s relations with its giant neighbors, China and India, its secret ties with North Korea, and the regime’s agendas in past dialogues with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As someone who once had contact with members of the ruling junta’s inner circle, he has also been able to shed light on the likes of former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, President Thein Sein and Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo.
The ‘Save the Irrawaddy’ Movement
Several months after a new, nominally civilian government was formed in late March, a document was leaked to the public that put Burma’s nascent reforms to the test. The document, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) commissioned by the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) for a mega-dam to be built at the source of the Irrawaddy River, highlighted the enormous risks the project presented to Burma’s most important waterway. Although some groups, such as the Burma Rivers Network and the Kachin Independence Organization, had long opposed the dam, to be built at Myitsone, the confluence of two rivers that form the Irrawaddy, it wasn’t until the EIA was released that the wider public began to take notice. Soon, the “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign was born, attracting intellectuals, celebrities and civic groups. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was among their number, but more surprisingly, even some members of the government had expressed sympathy with the campaigners’ cause. After months of increasingly outspoken opposition, however, the movement was silenced—not by a crackdown, as so often in the past, but by a decision to suspend the project, in a rare display of responsiveness by Burma’s rulers to “the will of the people.”
Than Htut Aung
At Eleven Media Group’s 11th anniversary celebration in June, CEO Than Htut Aung tested the newfound freedom of Burma’s press by openly opposing the controversial Myitsone Dam project and criticizing the country’s heavy dependence on China, noting that it posed an imminent threat because a weak Burma could not resist dominance by its giant neighbor. Then in November, at a reception to mark 11.11.11, Than Htut Aung took the bold steps of reserving seats for the imprisoned 88 Generation Students group leaders and asking the government to free them all. In addition, he pointedly discussed the need for the rule of law in Burma and peace in the ethnic regions, while at the same time acknowledging changes that have taken place in the country and praising President Thein Sein and the new government for instituting them. As a result of Than Htut Aung’s political tact, Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of Burma’s Lower House of Parliament, the Pyithu Hluttaw, reportedly sent a congratulatory message following the event.
There is no doubt that former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe personally chose ex-general and ex-prime minister Thein Sein to be the new president of Burma. Known to be a mellow bookworm, a good listener and the least corrupt of the generals in the previous junta, Thein Sein was Than Shwe’s safest and best bet. In less than a year, he and his new government have been able to garner much needed legitimacy, both at home and abroad. Thein Sein’s approach to the opposition, particularly to Aung San Suu Kyi, is much more open and less confrontational that that taken by the previous military leaders. As a result, Suu Kyi has said she believes he is honest and straightforward. Although known in the past to be indecisive in making major decisions and currently having to struggle to keep hardliners at bay, Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the controversial Myitsone Dam project received domestic support and his one-on-one meeting with Suu Kyi injected a sense of hope among the people of Burma. The international community has also expressed a degree of confidence in Thein Sein while pushing him to institute more concrete reforms.
As the grandson of a former UN secretary general and a former UN employee, as well as a former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he taught history for many years, Thant Myint-U never lost his interest in Burma. This year, his latest title, “Where China Meets India” has joined “The River of Lost Footsteps” as a must-read book on Burma. In addition, Thant Myint-U’s comments, interviews and op-ed articles have appeared in international publications. Although he says he just wants to contribute in his areas of expertise and not become involved in Burmese politics, Thant Myint-U has been a strong proponent of lifting sanctions. He has also called for economic reforms and has emphasized the need to improve the quality of education as a means of bringing prosperity to Burma.
US Senator John McCain is a long-time Burma watcher and a key supporter of the country’s pro-democracy movement. At the end of his visit to Burma in 2011, he drew headlines by telling reporters in Rangoon that, “The winds of change are now blowing, and they will not be confined to the Arab world. Governments that shun evolutionary reforms now will eventually face revolutionary change later.” During his trip to Burma, McCain met with a wide range of stakeholders, and prior to his arrival he held discussions with activists and humanitarian workers at the Thai-Burma border. In Naypyidaw, he delivered a strong message to Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is known to be a government hardliner. “Similarly, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself has stated, without concrete actions by this government that signal a deeper commitment to democratic change, there should be no easing or lifting sanctions,” said McCain.
Former Pentagon official Derek Mitchell was appointed the Obama Administration’s special representative and policy coordinator for Burma this year and has been putting into effect its constructive engagement policy by shuttling between Rangoon and Washington ever since. To the surprise of American officials, including Mitchell, the Burmese government warmly welcomed him and discussed several burning issues, including the release of political prisoners, conflict in ethnic regions and non-proliferation. Mitchell is an expert on China and studied Burma while with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. In his press briefings in Rangoon, he first addressed Aung San Suu Kyi by her full name but then called her “Daw Suu,” showing where Washington’s heart lies. His task in Burma won’t be easy, but he has the full support of the Burmese pro-democracy opposition and has received considerable cooperation from the new government.
Ludu Sein Win
As the wave of criticism regarding the Myitsone Dam project swelled in 2011, seasoned journalist Ludu Sein Win warned President Thein Sein that, “If people cannot use civilized means and take to the street to call for an end of that project, those who plan to continue the project will have to take responsibility for the protests.” Ludu Sein Win was imprisoned on Coco Island from 1969-1972. Despite suffering a stroke in 1980 that paralyzed half his body and currently being attached to an oxygen infusion machine, he continues to comment on Burma’s current events, media and culture, writing articles and commentaries that appear in publications such as the Weekly Eleven journal. He has authored many pieces focused on improving the standards of Burmese journalism, but is most controversial for his straight-forward commentaries directed at both the government and the opposition, as well as modern youth and culture.
Phyu Phyu Thin
Phyu Phyu Thin is an NLD youth leader who has been involved in helping HIV/AIDS patients since 2002. Her NLD-affiliated welfare group runs three shelters in Rangoon that house about 100 HIV/AIDS patients, and provide food, bedding, antiretroviral treatment and other drugs. This year the centers have gone from being a target of consistent junta harassment to a showcase for the new government’s openness. Just after her release from house arrest in November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi visited one of the centers and the previous regime responded by threatening to close it down on drummed-up violations of health regulations. At the time, Phyu Phyu Thin said, “If the patients don’t want to move, we will stand in front of them even if authorities try to arrest us.” She defied the order and continued her work, and after a domestic and international outcry the center was allowed to remain open. This year, it has become a magnet for visiting foreign government representatives.
Nay Win Maung
As one of the seven founders and currently the general secretary and program director of Myanmar Egress, Nay Win Maung stands at the forefront of Burma’s “Third Force.” The son of a former army officer who is known to be close to the Burmese military, he was a supporter of the controversial 2008 Constitution, has often criticized the activities of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and was a vocal proponent of the rigged 2010 election. Myanmar Egress is a non-profit organization that often focuses on political and economic issues, and has both advised the Burmese government on these topics and sent youth to the Vahu Development Institute in Thailand to be trained in them. Nay Win Maung was personally involved in peace talks in late 2011 between the government and the Shan State Army-South (SSA), an ethnic armed group, which resulted in a state-level ceasefire agreement between the Shan State authorities and the SSA. At the same time, he publishes Living Color magazine and the Voice Weekly journal, for which he has written editorials and articles that are consistently favorable to the Burmese government.
From the time he was named information minister for Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s junta in 2003 until the new government was sworn in at the end of March, Kyaw Hsan was predictably hard-line, exercising draconian control over Burma’s media. But this year, as the minister of both the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture in President Thein Sein’s new government, he has become unpredictably schizophrenic. He has considerably relaxed media restrictions, allowing front page photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, declaring that certain media topics do not have to pass through the notorious censorship board and removing criticism of foreign and exile media from in state-run newspapers. At the same time, however, he has maintained tight restrictions on news related to politics, clashes with ethnic armed groups or human rights violations committed by people within the government. In one infamous instance, he cryptically cited the ancient Buddhist fable of Saddan, the elephant king whose queen was bitten by red ants attracted by flowers that he had given her, and suggested that the “gift” of a free media could bring more disadvantages to the country than advantages.
Thein Nyunt, formerly a leading member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), made headlines in 2010 when he and several others broke away from the NLD and formed the National Democratic Force (NDF) in order to compete in the 2010 election. This year, after winning a seat in Parliament representing Rangoon’s Thingangyun Township, he was dismissed from the NDF for speaking to the media about a financial controversy among party leaders. Undeterred, Thein Nyunt then founded a new political party named the New National Democratic Party and became its chairman. As an MP, Thein Nyunt has become well-known for submitting proposals and raising questions in the parliamentary sessions with regard to the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles and the improvement of prison conditions. Thein Nyunt is also a practicing lawyer.
Burma’s most famous comedian is also well-known as a sharp-tongued critic of the country’s military rulers—a distinction that has repeatedly landed him in prison. On Oct 12, the full-moon day marking the end of the Buddhist Lent, he was released from his latest stint behind bars as part of an amnesty declared by President Thein Sein. Zarganar had been imprisoned for criticizing the former junta’s handling of the relief efforts for victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed around 150,000 people and left millions homeless in May 2008. He was arrested while playing an active role in those efforts in his other capacity as one of Burma’s leading humanitarians. Since his release, he has vowed to continue his artistic and political work, and has been busy visiting political prisoners still in detention and raising funds to assist them through his Facebook account (which he has also used to announce that he has temporarily stopped giving interviews to exiled media). He will begin the new year with a four-day film festival, “The Art of Freedom,” where pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will award prizes to the best entries.
When Zayar Thaw was released from prison in May as part of the first of two amnesties by Burma’s new quasi-civilian government, he vowed to continue his political activities. A member of ACID, the band that brought hip-hop music to Burma, he was arrested in 2008 on charges of forming an illegal organization and illegally possessing foreign currency and sentenced to six years in prison. The organization in question was Generation Wave (GW), an underground network of young activists founded during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. His sentence was later commuted to four years, and he was freed just six months short of his scheduled release. Now back in action, he has revived GW’s activities, turning it into an above-ground organization involved in both politics and art. In June, he performed at an event marking Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday, and he has since appeared at other political events.
Cheery Zahau, one of Burma’s leading young activists, was named the Chin Person of the Year in 2011, becoming the fifth and youngest person to receive the award. Chosen for the honor through voting by Chin people living inside Burma and abroad, the 30-year-old former coordinator of the India-based Women’s League of Chinland started working on human rights issues in Burma in 2003. Since then, she has traveled to foreign capitals to meet with world leaders, including former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former US President George W Bush, and even made a clandestine trip back to her native Chin State to act as a guide for an episode of the BBC program “Tropic of Cancer” that highlighted the plight of the predominantly Christian Chin people. Now with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, she has emerged as a strong voice not only for her own people, but also for the whole of Burma.
Naw Ohn Hla
An outspoken political activist and former National League for Democracy (NLD) organizer in Rangoon’s Hmawbi Township, Naw Ohn Hla was released from Taungoo Prison in May after serving 19 months of a two-year sentence for crimes against the state. Naw Ohn Hla’s alleged crime involved leading a Tuesday prayer service every week at Shwedagon Pagoda on behalf of Burma’s political prisoners. Since her release, the 50-year-old has been vocal in calling for the NLD not to participate in what she calls a flawed political process.
In September, the Wall Street Journal released a list of the 30 richest people in Southeast Asia. Burmese tycoon and alleged arms dealer Tay Za appeared at No. 12. Though he has long been targeted by Western economic sanctions, Tay Za and his Htoo Group of companies continue to wield remarkable power across a wide range of industries in Burma, including banking, jade and gold mining, logging, hotels and resorts, a private airline, transportation, heavy machinery hire, petrol stations, construction, agriculture and FM radio stations. He is also the founder of Yangon United Football Club. However, several analysts suggest Tay Za’s days in the sun are numbered—he apparently does not enjoy the same privileged status under President Thein Sein’s administration that he did as a close crony of Than Shwe’s military junta.
Sixty-two-year-old Daw Shu was awarded the Pyithu Gonyi (Citizen of Burma Award) in May by a US-based selection board that collects votes from Burmese around the world and rewards volunteers who contribute to Burmese society. Born in cyclone-ravaged Bogalay in Irrawaddy Division, Daw Shu is renowned for supplying food parcels to detained Buddhist monks and political prisoners. Among Burma’s monkhood she is highly respected and known by the Pali-Sanskrit name Bhikkhu Matr, meaning “mother of monks.”
The youngest son of Burma’s first president and the current director of the Euro-Burma Office in Brussels, Harn Yawnghwe is a former adviser to the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (the self-described Burmese government in exile) and has more recently taken over as the acting executive director of the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma after the exile media group was hit by a corruption scandal. His interests are varied, however, and in November he took part in or oversaw preliminary talks between the Shan State Army-South and a government delegation led by Railway Minister Aung Min at the Thai-Burmese border. He was also photographed the month before in a similar situation—at peace talks between Aung Min and the Karen National Union.
Praised was heaped on the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation Zaw Zaw after the Burmese national football team won third place at the 24th Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia in November. But Zaw Zaw is more than just a sports promoter: He is also one of richest and best-connected businessmen in Burma. With close ties to Burma’s generals, his company, Max Myanmar, is engaged in a wide range of enterprises: banking, the construction of the Tavoy deep-sea port, car importing, fuel distribution, gem excavation, hotels and tourism, liquor bottling, cement factories and rubber plantations. In May, it acquired Yangon Airways. Almost as ubiquitous as the brand name of his company, he is known to all as “Max Myanmar Zaw Zaw.”
Nay Myo Zin
Former army captain Nay Myo Zin became the first political dissident detained and convicted by the Thein Sein government. Retired from the armed forces, Nay Myo Zin was running an Internet café in Rangoon and working as a volunteer for a blood donor program when he was arrested on April 2. Accused of communicating with Voice of America and an exiled political group, he was charged under the draconian Electronics Act 33/A and—after alleged heavy interrogation—sentenced to 10 years by a special court in Insein Prison. His lawyer, Hla Myo Myint, said that the real reason Nay Myo Zin was imprisoned was because he had written several articles on blogs critical of the Burmese army, and that his conviction proves there is still no rule of law in Burma. His family fears that he is seriously injured and in poor health as a result of his torture in prison.
Born Yeh Min Thein, this hip-hop singer and rapper is better known in Burma as Yatha. In September he appeared along with other notable singers, poets and assorted heartthrobs at the “Irrawaddy of Youth” concert in Rangoon to raise awareness of the environmental and social dangers posed to the Irrawaddy River by recent industrial developments. After 10 years topping the charts, Yatha later announced that he would hereafter dedicate himself to a political career. In late 2011, he told The Irrawaddy he will contest next year’s by-elections as a candidate for the New Democracy Party, led by Thein Nyunt. If he is elected as a Member of Parliament, Yatha says he will focus his energy on improving Burma’s education system.
In a year that has seen many soften their stance on Burma’s new military-backed government, Dr Zarni stands out as a staunch critic of the country’s repackaged rulers. Casting doubt on the “dramatic” reforms of the past year, the founder of the US-based Free Burma Coalition (FBC) and current research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics has likened the ruling regime to “a clever fish which has learned to eat the bait around the hook.” This is not the first time his views have gone against the consensus. After the FBC’s early success in getting Pepsi to pull out of Burma, the group later took an anti-sanctions stance, and in March 2004, Zarni himself traveled to the country to meet members of the former junta. This experience ended badly, and he once again became an outspoken detractor of the regime. He continues to question the new government’s willingness to make substantive reforms, despite warnings from some that harsh criticism could play into the hands of hardliners.
Maung Wun Tha
Soe Thein, a veteran member of the National League for Democracy who was imprisoned for several years after winning a seat in Burma’s 1990 parliamentary election, has had a remarkable year. No longer active in politics, he has resumed his career as a journalist under his well-known pen name, Maung Wun Tha. At age 66, he is thriving in the relative openness that Burma’s media has enjoyed since a quasi-civilian government took power in March, writing regularly about political developments in the country and acting as an editorial adviser to the Pyithu Khit journal, launched in July 2010. He has both praised and reproached the new government, welcoming President Thein Sein’s decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone dam, while urging him to release political prisoners and end the fighting in ethnic areas. He has also been quick to embrace the new social media, using Facebook to communicate with Burmese expatriate communities around the world. Now back in Burma after a a stay in Thailand and the US, he is set to continue bring an outward-looking perspective to a long-isolated nation.
This article will appear in the print edition of The Irrawaddy, Vol. 19, No. 4.