A Conversation with Writer and Activist Ma Thida on Post-Election Myanmar
March 23, 2016
The Asia Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., focused on changes underway in post-election Myanmar, which included the Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar, Kim Ninh, along with Ma Thida, noted human rights activist, surgeon, and writer. Ma Thida sat down with our senior program officer Diana Kelly Alvord to discuss Myanmar and what’s needed to move the country forward after the historic November 2015 elections. Ma Thida, who spent five and a half years in prison in the 1990s for her activism, is founder of PEN International’s Myanmar Centre.
The deputy director general of the outgoing office of the president said in the aftermath of the elections that “all of our calculations were wrong; it was like a tsunami. This is payback for the last 50 years.” What are your thoughts on that assessment?
Ma Thida: Indeed, the November 8 elections were a demonstration by the voters of how much they wanted out of authoritarianism and instead on to new freedoms. The high turnout in the election was a demonstration of these new expectations – it was beyond everyone’s expectation – even for us.
Many were most surprised by the scope of NLD’s victory, which campaigned around the slogan: “Time to Change.” What do you think this means to people?
The citizens want change, but lasting change is not just a change in the party in power. There have been more than five decades of militarization in our country, so citizens most of all wanted a change from the military-dominated government to a civilian government. And that’s what they got.
But from the point of view of activists in the country, real, transformative change does not mean only a shift from a military-dominated government to a civilian-dominated one. What we want and are pushing for is the advancement of democratic principles of a democratic society. People’s expectations for change can mean many different things, and it’s important that we never go back to the past.
Are there specific things that you think people are looking to the new government to do early on?
Yes, there are some serious issues to be addressed. In the immediate term, I think citizens are looking to the government to grant general amnesty to the political prisoners, including students, who are still in jail. For the majority of ethnic people, the peace process is the top priority, and for the majority of the ordinary people, I think that economic improvement and security are the top issues.
How could the new government address the entrenched political divide?
Even before the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD talked a lot about national reconciliation. But when we talk about national reconciliation, it’s not just simply between the military or the state’s army and the ethnic armed forces. It goes beyond that to mean reconciliation between the military and civilians as well as between the Bama (the majority ethnic group) and the other ethnic and religious minorities.
Addressing the political divide will also require greater reconciliation between the government and the citizens. The two sides have been pretty much at odds with each other for more than five decades, so this is the time for citizens to reconcile with the government, and the government should also do so with the citizens.
We now have a list of new ministries, including the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs. This is one of the first concrete steps that the new government has made in reconciliation efforts. But it will be important to watch how these efforts are implemented.
In a 2014 interview right after the elections, you said that these freedoms have brought with them new challenges. How so?
The people really don’t understand the true essence of freedom of expression so in that sense, they cannot truly consume the freedoms they now have. It’s also difficult for them to differentiate what is true, lasting freedom and what is fabricated or manipulated freedom because they don’t have experience with true freedom. When we talk about freedom of expression, we should also stress minority language rights. Without having it [that right to language], I cannot see freedom of expression truly thriving in Myanmar. Unfortunately, most people aren’t paying attention to that aspect of freedom of expression.
In 2013, you founded PEN International’s Myanmar Centre, working on strengthening freedom of expression and the legal frameworks needed to ensure it. Can you tell us about this work?
Due to the censorship that was in place, I wasn’t even aware that there was a PEN International, much less a global network of PEN centers, until much later. It wasn’t until one of my senior editors at the time was sentenced to seven years in prison that one of the PEN centers adopted him as their honorary member, and I started learning about it. And then in 1993 I myself was sentenced to prison, and was later represented by PEN International.
Even though I was released from prison in 1999, it wasn’t until 2013 that I founded the PEN Myanmar Centre. But I have always wanted this kind of centre here. In the past, our literary culture has been much like the political culture – very hierarchical – so writers just speak, and readers just read. The centre serves as an NGO for writers and for advocacy and education about literature, helping aspiring writers from all backgrounds in Myanmar. Since its launch in September 2013, PEN Myanmar has been organizing open, public literary readings and panel discussions across Myanmar to encourage dialogue between writers and readers and promote critical thinking and debate.
We now have a very strong “literature for everyone” project, which brings together writers, readers, and non-readers – even those who are illiterate – to discuss ideas and stories in our literature. To help raise awareness among the young writers and encourage writing and talking about peace, in 2014 we started an annual short story writing contest. At the same time, we know that talking about peace is still not enough. Hate speech is a serious concern here, so PEN is conducting conflict–sensitive media monitoring research, with a focus on learning how hate speech is disseminated and spread via social media print media and TV, video, films, and songs.
Right now, we are very focused on the right to information (RTI) and increasing transparency and establishing this in the new government and parliament. Building on that, we need to establish a strong right-to-information law and a freedom-of-information act.
What is the status of the RTI movement now in Myanmar?
The Ministry of Information is pushing to establish a RTI law because it wants to become a member of the international Open Government Partnership, and a robust RTI law is one of the criteria. Myanmar has publicly committed to membership but is not yet in compliance. Over the last few weeks, the Ministry has reworked the draft RTI, but the process has largely been done without public consultation, so we [civil society] cannot accept this draft. We are now working together with legal reform civil society organizations and will have our own draft proposal soon. This has been a slow process as we thought we should wait for the new parliament to be up and running. Indeed, the way we want to have the bill developed is by public consultation. It’s too soon to know, but there are some MPs among the incoming group who have shown interest in this transparent approach, so there is reason to be optimistic.
PEN Myanmar recently published the “November 8 Diary” – a compilation of narratives of the historic Election Day portrayed by writers, journalists, observers, and ordinary citizens based on their experiences, which was jointly supported by The Asia Foundation and the Canadian Embassy.
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