The evening air in a suburb of Chiang Mai is quiet and pleasantly lukewarm. On the balcony, next to his office full of books, Min Zin has moments of peace when the news from Myanmar threatens to overwhelm him. As director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy, an independent Myanmar think tank, he closely follows the bloody power struggle between the junta and a range of civilian and military resistance groups in exile from Thailand.
“Today is a really bad day”, sighs the usually quite stoic Min Zin. It touches him personally that ex-British ambassador Vicky Bowman and her husband, the artist Htein Lein, have been arrested in Yangon. The umpteenth old acquaintances who are locked up. At least 12,000 Myanmarese have been held in prisons and torture centers since the coup on 1 February 2021.
He finds it as significant as it is ominous that even Bowman, who is respected by many in Myanmar, who, like her husband, has steered clear of political activism for years and who, after thirty years of experience with the country, is also part of the security apparatus and the network of ex- military personnel has some good contacts, is not safe. Their arrest came shortly after the United Kingdom announced it supported the Gambia’s case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice over possible genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
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As a political analyst, 48-year-old Min Zin is adept at sketching scenarios. He is not hopeful about the outcome of this case. There is no independent judiciary. “They are hostages of the military. But the rules of the game of negotiations do not apply. This regime does what it pleases.”
He warns that the modus operandi of the current military top cannot be compared with that of previous army leaders. “For the first time in their history, they lack any ideological legitimacy or underpinning. Pastors still pretended to have popular support. These leaders don’t bother anymore. They have not an ounce of shame or conscience. They know that all they have left is brute force to try and quell the insurgency.”
The sitting room of Min Zin’s house looks attractive, with a comfortable sofa and colorful children’s drawings of his daughter on the walls. But refugees also knocked on the door of the small household in Chiang Mai. Several young people who studied at his institute stayed in the guest house for months. When the military and police crushed protests against the coup, they wanted to take up arms like tens of thousands of other protesters. “Think about whether there are better ways to contribute to the struggle,” Min Zin warned them. Now they are trying to get into training abroad.
It is as if he is reliving the history of his own generation. “I am now a veteran,” he says with slight derision, now that he had to flee from the military again, just like 25 years ago. Min Zin grew up in Yangon, in a family where private conversations about politics were commonplace. Several of his father’s old friends had led the country from British rule to 1948 independence. When the military took power in 1962, they had been behind bars for years. He hung on their every word as they talked about their lives.
He was 14 years old when Myanmarese took to the streets en masse in 1988 in anger at poverty and oppression by the military regime. Students and schoolchildren played a leading role in the call for democratic reforms and Min Zin became leader of the Nakatha, the forbidden union for schoolchildren.
Reckless excitement, deadly seriousness
It was exciting to be in the heaving crowd as loud as possible ‘Democracy do ya! (‘Democracy our mission!’) and wave the organization’s banned flag. But the atmosphere of reckless excitement turned to deadly seriousness as the army’s violence soon began to fall around him. While thousands were locked up by the military, Min Zin went into hiding.
Thus began a nine-year wandering from house to house and from monastery to monastery. He wrote pamphlets against the regime and occasionally led a short mini-demonstration. One activist after another was arrested and in 1997 he threatened to become the next. He fled to Thailand on a moonless rainy night. It felt like a defeat. His father’s warning rang in his head: “Those who leave the country will inevitably be marginalized.”
For the first time, the military rulers lack any ideological legitimacy or underpinning
He was thin, unusually tall for a Myanmarese and almost translucent from the lack of daylight. His English sounded surprisingly good for someone who hadn’t been able to go to school since he was a teenager. He had mastered the language through the radio. He also spent his underground days meditating, playing chess, reading and reading some more. Friends had a system to supply him with books.
In an avalanche of stories that had been accumulated for nine years, he looked back on his underground existence those first days after his escape. The pain was audible in his voice as he said, “In fact, I never had a childhood.” And: “A lot of people have been arrested and tortured because of me.” A few years later, his childhood friend and student resistance ally would die in prison from torture and neglected malaria.
Once in exile, Min Zin’s life took off. He was invited by European politicians and lobby groups dealing with Myanmar. The Secret Annex was one of the highlights on a first trip to Amsterdam. In his hiding places he had read Anne Frank’s diary to pieces. He recognized the words of his Jewish peer, who was trying to discover who she was in her anxious seclusion.
He was so impressed in the United States that he was awarded a scholarship to study political science and journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, even though he hadn’t seen a desk since he was 14. MTV sent him out for an interview with Nelson Mandela. He wrote analyzes for international publications.
He was just married when the military leaders suggested burying the hatchet in 2012. His articles for The New York Times and Foreign Policy, in which he also criticized the democratic opposition, had not gone unnoticed. To his astonishment, those who had hunted him for years asked him to advise them in the transition process they had embarked on. He politely declined.
During this period of fledgling reforms, he shuttled back and forth between his homeland and his home in Chiang Mai. It was a memorable, but also uncomfortable return. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released after more than 15 years of house arrest and became a member of parliament. His comments on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party members were not kind, although many were old acquaintances. As an independent thinker, he looked critically at all parties. “The fragile transition process is based on agreements between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leaders. There is no institution building, there is no policy, decisions are taken ad hoc,” he noted in 2013.
The reunion with his homeland exposed more painful differences between him and those left behind. He felt that the Myanmar ethnic majority had too little understanding for the position of minorities, who want equal rights and a federal state. His relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom he came to be a son in the turbulent months of 1988, cooled after he openly expressed doubts about her skills as a politician. This criticism was perceived by many as a lack of respect. “I named my daughter after her. How much more respect can I show?”
He realized earlier than most that tensions between the military’s top and civilian government, led by Suu Kyi after the 2015 elections, were so high that a coup was looming. On February 1, 2021, he was proved right. The reasons for the coup are believed to be complex. But the personal clash between Suu Kyi and army chief and current head of the junta Min Aung Hlaing is certainly one, he says.
When he returned to his homeland, he also realized his dream of training young people in democratic leadership and critical thinking in his think tank. “I wanted to give them the mentors I never had myself. I think it’s terrible that they are now going through what my generation also went through.” He sympathizes with his compatriots who oppose the regime and is clearly affected by the thought that lives are lost every day.
In the end, he forces himself to take a step back again and again in order to maintain his critical independent view. He avoids interviews as much as possible. He prefers to present the studies that his think tank is still cautiously conducting. Within the resistance against the junta there is an atmosphere who is not with us is against us. An independent view is quickly seen as betrayal. “But right now good analyzes are needed”, is his conviction.
He is concerned about how the situation is unfolding. “Society is becoming more and more militarized. People donate their savings to provide weapons to civilian militias fighting the junta. But that leaves them with nothing for medical care or education. The emphasis is too much on the military struggle. A broader strategy and moral leadership are lacking.” He thinks it is possible that the army will implode within the next three years. „If we do not prepare ourselves better for this, we are heading for a long period of anarchy and low-intensityconflicts.”
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