AUNG DIN is arguably the world's leading Burmese political dissident who is not currently locked up or under house arrest. He founded and now heads the US Campaign for Burma. Mr. Aung has recently testified before the American Enterprise Institute and United States Senate, among others. He's also friends with Min Ko Naing and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the two leading legitimate Burmese leaders and winners of the 1990 elections which the dictatorship annulled. In late October he came to New York City where this exclusive interview took place.
Liberal Institute: In 1990 the people of Burma voted for freedom, the National League for Democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi. But the Burmese generals and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) utterly repudiated the elections and the will of the people. Instead, SLORC maintained -- and even worsened -- a horrific socialist dictatorship. You yourself went to jail for four years. What should the West, the world, and the UN have done in response to the 1990 usurpation and outrage by the military junta?
Aung Din: I was a student leader in 1988. Myself and the other student leaders organized a nationwide popular uprising. The same military junta as today gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the street -- people who were peacefully calling for political reforms, and an end to single-party rule.
But at the time the international community wasn't paying much attention to the situation in Burma -- so they didn't offer any kind of help. But even after the military cracked down on the '88 popular uprising, they could not cease the desire of the Burmese people for freedom and democracy.
We held multi-party general elections in 1990 in which the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming victory. But the military junta to this day still refuses to honor the results.
LI: Yes, but what should the West and America have done in response? The West and America did nothing to help.
Aung Din: At the time there was no help offered from the international community. That is true.
LI: Yes, but what should America, Britain, and Europe have done? Should they have intervened militarily?
Aung Din: Militarily? No. What we wanted is they should have put the situation in Burma before the UN Security Council. It was clearly the case that a democratically-elected government was overthrown by the military dictatorship. It was a matter that needed the attention of the UN Security Council. And it was up to the international community urgently to intervene -- to make things better.
LI: But today do you want America to send its military to Burma to help?
Aung Din: No, no, no. We don't want it.
LI: Why not?
Aung Din: We're just not asking for that. We're not talking about any kind of military intervention. We're not calling for anybody to come in and overthrow the military government. We're calling for a peaceful solution by dialog.
The second point here is Burma has a long border with China. If there is some kind of military intervention from the international community I believe that the Chinese will invade at least some part of our country -- and maybe divide it. So we just don't want to see that kind of scenario. That's why we never ever ask for any kind of military intervenion.
LI: Well, okay. I know that in 2003 you spoke to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee and you said "I want to stress that we are not asking for military invasion." But I'm a libertarian. I'm radically pro-freedom. So I think that maybe America should help. I think that the United States military should smart-bomb the military and police -- not the people. Maybe we do have to worry about China. But would it have really been wrong -- back in mid-September 2007, during the horrific military crackdown against the Buddhist monks and others -- for America to have attacked the junta's military and police?
Aung Din: Yes, I still think that it would have been wrong.
Aung Din: Because so far we have bipartisan support from the US -- from the Republicans and the Democrats. If the Administration were to choose to use the military to help the situation in Burma, I believe there would be opposition from the Democratic Party and others, and we would lose our unanimous bipartisan support from the United States.
LI: Do you think America or Britain or others should give the people of Burma guns or other arms?
Aung Din: No. That's not what we're calling for.
Aung Din: No, no, no. We are a peace-seeking movement. Not a violent movement. We never ask for guns. We only ask for assistance in the pro-democracy movement. And for good treatment in the United States. But we never ask for guns or arms to help us.
LI: Maybe one more question on this. Do Aung Sun Suu Kyi or Min Ko Naing favor guns or weapons to Burma?
Aung Din: No. Not at all.
LI: No direct intervention from America?
Aung Din: Not at all. They never favor that.
Even [Aung Din's close friend] Min Ko Naing. He had a chance to flee to the Thai border, but he never chose to run away. He had many chances to flee over the Thai-Burma border but he never chose to flee.
Aung Din: He chose to stay with his own people, even though he knew he would be arrested when he was finally caught. Even though he knew he would be tortured. [as actually happened]
LI: Is he still in prison?
Aung Din: Unfortunately yes. I just recently heard from one of my friends inside Burma that he and other dissidents had been recently released. But it turned out not to be the case.
LI: Wasn't he in jail for 14 or more years?
Aung Din: Yes. 15 years. From 1979 to 2004. But he was arrested again in September of 2006. He was released after 5 months, and then he was arrested again on September 21st, 2007.
LI: Is Aung San Suu Kyi in prison also?
Aung Din: No, she's under house arrest. She's still detained in her house -- since 1980.
LI: Do you know what libertarianism is?
Aung Din: I know a little -- not much.
LI: Because libertarianism is very radically pro-freedom. It's very much in favor of small government, and big individual liberty and responsibility.
Aung Din: I looked at your writings before coming here [for the interview]. At your previous articles. I noticed you really attack President Bush [smiles].
LI: Yes, because he's very, very weak when it comes to liberty. He's terrible for freedom, actually.
Aung Din: Yes, but as for us, we don't want to get involved in US politics. We are still working with what President Bush -- with what he is doing in Burma. And we are still enjoying the bipartisan support of both Republicans and Democrats. This is our intent.
LI: Okay, I understand. Maybe I don't agree.
Aung Din: I can't speak out for what other people -- such as yourself -- like or promote. I only want to serve my own cause -- which is Burma [not libertarianism].
LI: In August of 2007 there was an uprising led by Buddhist monks. Did you think, in your own mind, that it would be a successful revolution or a failed revolution?
LI: Because now it's failed. It has failed.
Aung Din: Actually, this was not the first attempt at revolution. And it won't be the last one. This revolution and popular movement started in 1980. And it's never ended. It's never been killed. What we can say -- what it shows -- is that these are the continuous movements of the people of Burma to achieve their desire which is democracy and their human rights. So, yes, for the time being the military has successfully used violence to crush the peaceful demonstrators. And they aren't able to stage a protest for the moment.
But the people will come back later. They will regroup themselves. So I just say that this is not the first, and this is not the last [uprising]. The peaceful protests will continue.
LI: But the revolution in August and September failed.
Aung Din: No. I would not say that. The revolution has survived. It's still on-going. It started in 1988 and the people continue their protesst. They pass this down from one generation to another.
LI: I know, but back in October Americans were thinking that this would be like an Eastern European revolution -- like in Czechoslovakia or Poland in 1989. So did you think a little while ago that this uprising was going to succeed or...
Aung Din: We know that as long as we can't organize or control the military to stand up for the people of Burma, it may fail.
LI: Yes, but in Czechoslavakia and Poland the people there didn't have the military on their side. But they won anyway. Their revolution was successful. Your revolution in September failed. So are you sad or mad or...?
Aung Din: Yes. I'm sad. Also mad. But I just don't think it has failed totally. It is blocked by the regime for the moment. But our day will come. I will never say that the revolution has failed. The revolution survives.
LI: What did the people of Burma do wrong in September?
Aung Din: They did nothing wrong.
Aung Din: No.
LI: But the uprising was unsuccessful.
Aung Din: Well, we're faced with an autocrat and evil regime which persists. But the struggle goes on. When you're faced with a brutal dictator who is not reluctant to use guns and violence to kill peaceful demonstrators, you must persist also. So the uprising has stopped for the time being. But this is very natural... But it does not mean that the revolution has been stopped totally.
LI: When will there be another uprising?
Aung Din: I don't know. It might be tomorrow. It might be next year. I don't know.
LI: This is very philosophical but: Right now America is failing in bringing freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there any lessons we can learn from there that apply to Burma?
Aung Din: I don't think so. Because I think the situations are quite different.
But I don't want to discuss American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think American involvement in Burma is very different, and those other two situations don't really apply.
LI: How did the government treat you in prison?
Aung Din: On the first day of my arrest I was removed from a passenger bus. They stopped their car and pulled me out, in front of all the other passengers. It looked like they were catching a thief or criminal. People didn't know who I was or what I did. But they pulled me off the bus, handcuffed me, and put a hood over my face.
They then put me in a truck which was waiting nearby. And we drove off. I didn't know where I was going because they put me on the floor. They also placed their shoes on my body and neck -- I wasn't even really able to breath. This lasted for about 45 minutes or an hour, I don't know.
Finally they got me to my destination. Then they dragged me down from the truck. They dragged me all the way to the jail -- to the cell where they put me. They didn't uncuff me. They didn't take off my hood. Subsequently I heard steps. A door opened and someone came in. Then many people came in. They started to hit me and kick me. All without saying anything. I was like a soccer ball.
(to be continued...)