(Mizzima) - Following a hotly debated panel discussion on Burma’s future held Monday morning at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, journalists from Mizzima and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) requested follow-up interviews with featured speaker Dr. Nay Win Maung, Burmese media mogul and co-founder of Myanmar Egress, a NGO that receives foreign funding to conduct civil society and entrepreneurial training workshops. Dr. Nay Win Maung is also associated with a loose alliance of organizations and individuals that claim to neither represent the regime nor the National League for Democracy, yet support the nation’s upcoming and increasingly controversial national elections.
Dr. Nay Win Maung, as it happens, politely declined the request for an interview.
His comments during his panel presentation, however, gave the overall impression that things in Burma were gradually changing for the better. He told the assembled audience of Burmese dissidents, foreign diplomats and journalists that as Burma’s economy continues to be liberalized, military-civilian relations can also change over time.
During the presentation’s Q&A session when responding to a question about military cronies getting prized national assets, Dr. Nay Win Maung acknowledged that while the current phase of privatization “is in a way shaping the future winners and losers” those who buy the assets would still have to remain competent business owners “because if you’re not competitive then you will go bankrupt. It’s not the 100 meter run, it’s a marathon. So, starting ahead of the rest of the players doesn’t necessarily mean you win.”
Dr. Nay Win Maung’s positive spin on the privatization scheme currently plaguing Burma rings rather hollow. Recent examples from nations like Russia, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, which all experienced the rapid privatization of key state assets sold off to a small group of insiders at fraudulently low prices, shows that no matter how incompetent the cronies are they will remain wealthy and powerful due to the massive advantages initially received. Despite the overthrow of the Suharto regime more than a decade ago, lucrative business deals that his cronies and his children received during his rule ensure they are still key players in the Indonesian economy today, and in fact some of the richest people in the world.
During his presentation Dr. Nay Win Maung raised some eyebrows when he claimed that if parties at the state legislature level were able to gain a majority, then using the power granted to local governments by the constitution they could “easily” implement their desired policies. He neglected to mention, however, that the likelihood that opposition parties could achieve a majority at either the state or federal level is extremely slim, especially given that 25 percent of seats are reserved for appointed military officers.
In a 2008 email sent to Burmese opposition and ethnic leaders, a copy of which was obtained by The Irrawaddy, Dr. Nay Win Maung called on Aung San Suu Kyi to “provide a goodwill gesture in [giving Than Shwe a way out] by saying yes to the constitution.” That the new constitution bars Aug San Suu Kyi from ever serving as her party’s leader does not seem to bother Myanmar Egress. In Dr. Nay Win Maung’s words the jailed opposition leader must “learn to differentiate between genuine opposition politics and confrontational politics.” Another suggestion he put forth was that the NLD should agree to only contest half of the seats in the 2010 election, thus sending the signal that they do not want to take power but merely be in opposition.
In addition to his work with Myanmar Egress, Dr. Nay Win Maung is also publisher of Living Color magazine and The Voice weekly. The Burmese regime allows both journals to publish translations of foreign newspaper Op-Eds by the likes of Thant Myint U and Jim Webb, writings that favor Western economic engagement with the Burmese regime. Dr. Nay Win Maung co-founded Living Color magazine with the help of Ye Naing Win, son of former SPDC Prime Minister and Military Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt. When Khin Nyunt was purged from the Burmese junta following an internal power struggle, Ye Naing Win ceased being officially associated with the publication.
The Irrawaddy magazine also alleged in April 2008 that Dr. Nay Win Maung “reportedly has concessions in the timber industry and is also an executive member of Kanbawza Bank, which is closely connected to the junta’s No. 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye.”
Due to its close associations with Maung Aye, Kanbawza Bank remains on the European Union’s Burma sanctions list as does its head Aung Ko Win (a.k.a. Saya Kyaung). The bank recently purchased an 80 percent stake in state-owned Myanmar Airways International, in what many critics argue was a fraudulent and illegitimate privatization gift to the junta’s cronies. Unfortunately due to Nay Win Maung’s refusal to be interviewed, Mizzima was unable to verify if he still has any role with Kanbawza Bank or if he still maintains a financial connection with the blacklisted firm.
Dr. Nay Win Maung’s background, according to the Washington Post, is that of “a son of a military officer brought up among Burma's military elites, giving him good connections to military insiders.” According to the Wall Street Journal it was these connections that made him a useful intermediary between Oxfam International and the Burmese regime following Cyclone Nargis.
In light of his privileged position as a member of Burma’s elite it is easy to see why Dr. Nay Win Maung would be allowed by the Burmese regime to travel overseas as a representative of Burma’s “civil society”.
Mizzima has learned from sources inside Burma that Dr. Nay Win Maung claimed to friends and diplomats during the height of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2009 trial that all of Burma’s ’88 generation students were in favor of taking part in the 2010 elections except for Min Ko Naing. This proved to be quite untrue, as did his claim that jailed comedian Zarganar had been acting as an intermediary between the regime and the ’88 generation students.
When Mizzima interviewed a fellow member of Myanmar Egress about Dr. Nay Win Maung’s presentation in Bangkok, he replied that Dr. Nay Win Maung was speaking for himself and not on behalf of Myanmar Egress. Despite this claim many of Nay Win Maung’s opinion’s are expressed in Myanmar Egress‘s work and publications. In June 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that a study published by Myanmar Egress which was written by Dr. Nay Win Maung suggested that the NLD should not contest more than 50% of the seats in the 2010 national election (a proposal also made in his email to ethnic and political leaders that was leaked to the Irrawaddy).
Myanmar Egress’s offices are located in a mid-range Rangoon business hotel. As the organization charges students as much as a US $100 to a short course, Myanmar Egress’s classes are for the most part limited to members of Burma’s elite and upper middle class. Myanmar Egress does, however, claim to offer some scholarships to those students in financial need.
According to the Myanmar Egress website, which is almost exclusively in English, the NGO was formed “by a group of Myanmar nationalists [sic] committed to state building through positive change in a progressive yet constructive collaboration and working relationship with the government and all interest groups, both local and foreign.” How one can bring about progressive change by working in collaboration with Burma’s regime while it insists on jailing more than 2,100 political prisoners and is busy selling off the nation’s most prized assets to cronies remains to be seen.
That Myanmar Egress favors economic engagement with the West as a way of solving Burma’s many problems is hardly surprising given that several of its board members stand to gain financially from the Burmese economy’s further integration in the global marketplace. The NGO’s President, Tin Maung Than, is Vice-President of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation and according to the New York Times an adviser to Burma’s new rice industry association, while Vice-President Hla Maung Shwe is Chairman of the Myanmar Shrimp Association. As both Burma’s commercial fishing and shrimp sectors are known for widespread labor rights abuses, environmental destruction and close links with the military, it is questionable how industry representatives could contribute in a positive way to assisting a Burmese civil society NGO. Nonetheless, according to the Wall Street Journal, in 2009 the British development agency gave Myanmar Egress funding to conduct aid management training.
Hla Maung Shwe is reported to have been a former political prisoner. Following his release from prison he shifted his focus to business. According to Mizzima’s sources, he plays a key role in Myanmar Egress despite having a relatively low profile.
With a media mogul, two fishing executives, a senior travel company representative and an assortment of other major businesspeople on its board, Myanmar Egress looks more like a chamber of commerce than a civil society organization. It is therefore no surprise that in a November 2008 press release, ActionAid, an international partner of Myanmar Egress, described the organization as a “voluntary wing” of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, much of Burma’s real civil society remains behind bars, in exile or underground.