Mael Raynaud considers the enduring legacy of a key figure in Myanmar’s transition.
January the 1st is a special day for most people. It is a good time to think of the ones you love, and a good opportunity to let them know your love for them. In fact, it has become a day to extend good wishes to everyone you know.
While it is true in every family, there is one very special family for which this is particularly true in Myanmar: the Egress family. Every year, on that day, we remember Dr Nay Win Maung, who passed away six years ago in the first hours of 2012. Indeed, to those of us who worked for Myanmar Egress, a civil society organization that had been a training center and a think tank since 2006, his memory seems like it can never fade away.
His last year, of 2011, had been a crazy year for Myanmar Egress, as it had been for Myanmar in general. In fact, as this post argues, the two were intimately related, and what happened at Egress closely mirrored what happened in the country at large, or vice-versa.
The year started with Dr Nay Win Maung meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the NLD headquarters, and him being optimistic, enthusiastic even, about her capacity to some day take the lead of a transition few people outside our own office believed could be about to start.
In February and March, conversations were running wild about the new environment created by the elections of U Thein Sein as President and Thura Shwe Mann as Speaker of the House. Again, at Myanmar Egress, the analysis was clear and simple: this was the best possible scenario if the transition was to be a success. In April, two of the leaders of Egress, Dr Nay Win Maung and U Tin Maung Thann, spent a couple of days in Nay Pyi Taw working with U Thein Sein’s team as they planned for the new government’s first political moves. On August 14, as has been acknowledged by U Soe Thane in his recent memoirs, “Myanmar’s Transformation & U Thein Sein : an Insider’s Account” (2017, p. 31) the leaders of Egress spent yet another day talking to President U Thein Sein, ahead of his historic meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the launch of what would become the peace process. In November, the first meetings took place between U Aung Min and several of the Ethnic Armed Organizations, coordinated by Egress.
While there could never have been any good moment for those of us who loved Dr Nay Win Maung— as a father, a husband, a friend, a colleague, a teacher or a writer— to see him go, politically his death, on January the 1st, 2012, was an absolute catastrophe. The country had never needed him more.
As Vicky Bowman, a former British Ambassador (and now director of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business) put it in The Independent, on January 3rd, 2012: “The death from a heart attack of Dr Nay Win Maung has robbed Burma of an intellectual and public policy analyst of great integrity. It is a particular loss given that Burma’s politics are beginning to show positive signs, and the main protagonists – the military leaders and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – are both adopting the more conciliatory approach which Nay Win Maung had advocated”.
Yet the pace of change in those first weeks of 2012 was rapid. On January 12, the KNU entered in a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, after 65 years of fighting, one that still holds today. On January 13, almost all remaining political prisoners were freed, including many of the leaders of the new “Four Eights Party”, which was officially founded in December 2017. And in April, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and 43 other NLD MPs entered the parliament. The leadership and staff of Myanmar Egress, for the most part, became the backbone of the Myanmar Peace Center.
By January the 1st, 2017, as the Egress family remembered Dr Nay Win Maung on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his passing away, the first books on Myanmar’s transition had started to be published.
Marie Lall’s “Understanding Reform in Myanmar” (2016), dedicated to “my brother Nay Win Maung, without whom none of this would have ever happened”, describes the role played by Egress and Nay Win Maung as absolutely fundamental in the transition. And there is indeed a very strong argument to make that in 2010 and 2011, for two years, Myanmar Egress was the most important organization in Myanmar, besides the Army and the Government.
Matthew Mullen’s “Pathways that Changed Myanmar” (2016) has an entire chapter dedicated to “Nay Win Maung’s funeral”, explaining (p. 181) that “Nay Win Maung was one of the most debated figures (if not the most debated) in the struggle for change in military-ruled Myanmar. In the same way that Aung San Suu Kyi was the face of the public opposition, Nay Win Maung was the face of the Third Force” (Mullen also dedicates a chapter to the Third Force in his book). Mullen then goes on to argue (p.190) that: “Nay Win Maung’s legacy as a visionary is hard to deny, even for those who did not approve of his vision”.
Renaud Egreteau’s “Caretaking Democratization” (2016), too, in discussing the transition, assesses (p.6) that “this process has in turn largely been influenced by a revitalized Burmese civil society”, adding (p. 33) that “one of the key determinants, though, may have been the increasing influence of certain Burmese individuals, intellectuals, peripheral politicians and dissidents in exile”. And Egreteau to conclude (p. 33):“Nay Win Maung held particular influence”.
By January 2017, younger members of the Egress family had started to be noticed for their own work, too. Just over a month earlier, Frontier Myanmar had dedicated an article to the visionary initiative of a young Burmese intellectual, Daw Hla Hla Win. Then Tea Circle published a fascinating piece by another young Burmese intellectual, Ko Aung Tun. A few days later, the Myanmar Times published an equally fascinating piece, written by yet another young Burmese intellectual, Ko Nay Yan Oo. And finally, I myself had recently joined two incredible young women, twin sisters Daw Myat The Thitsar and Daw Myat Thet Thitsar, to work in the think tank they founded, the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation.
It would be hard for me not to notice that these five amazing young people are all Myanmar Egress alumni. Or to not see that when I organized a workshop on decentralization and federalism a few weeks ago, in December 2017, a number of really insightful comments were made by other former colleagues such as Su Mon Thant, of the Carter Center, or Thura Zaw, of the Penna Institute, as well as a former student of mine at Egress, Zaw Min Oo, who later became a valued colleague of mine at EMReF, and Yee Mon Hsu, a woman whose desk, as the executive director of the National Enlightenment Institute, in Mawlamyine, sits under a picture of Nay Win Maung. And the list could go on, as dozens of former Egress staff still work in many of the civil society organizations focusing on elections, parliaments or political parties.
In his book (p. 73), Matthew Mullen recalls an interview with Dr Nay Win Maung, in 2010: “The idea is to plant as many seeds as possible. We want to flood the government, the UN, all the INGOs, all the local NGOs with promising young people who believe they can change the system. We want to find all the people who think that politics are worth the time and get into the system”.
Mission accomplished, I am very tempted to say.
As I wrote in an article published on a French website in January 2012: “It is sad to think that Nay Win Maung will not be able to see his work completed. But the Nay Win Maung I knew would have said that his work would never have been completed anyway, for there is no end to politics, in Myanmar and anywhere. As we witness the reaction of hundreds of young Burmese people, Egress staff or former students of the organization, as well as the latest issue of “The Voice,” we can see that the greatest success of this irreplaceable man was that he helped prepare an entire generation to replace him”
It is clear that Nay Win Maung played an important role in the transition. U Soe Thane writes (p241) : “Dr Nay Win Maung is still remembered to guide those with old thoughts and malpractices into becoming new leaves. In fact, he and his Egress team are pioneers in this effort. Dr Nay Win Maung perished to the great loss of the country, as it was laying the foundation to build up a democratic system.”
It is clear that he contributed to training some of the most promising young minds of Myanmar. But beyond the continued collective works of the members of the Egress family, it is less obvious what his legacy is, six years after he passed away.
I have heard critics rue countless times that the Third Force has all but disappeared from public life. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Matthew Mullen has given us one of the best definitions of the Third Force (p. 9): “reconstructive politics was the pathway of the Third Force, a loose network of individuals and organizations who sought change through engaging the junta or creating opportunities where the State was failing”. He also explains why the Third Force is far from having disappeared (p. 73) : “the opening of Myanmar in 2012 presented new opportunities to the Third force that ultimately led to its dissolution. To clarify, dissolution was seen by many in the Third Force as the goal. If this network of practitioners could effectively infiltrate the system and formalize around it, there would be no need for a “third” force”.
Mullen’s argument is exactly what I have suggested, here in Tea Circle: “this movement coalesced, politically, in what was dubbed the Third Force in 2010, and then morphed into, simply, what people call “the Burmese transition”.
There is indeed a consensus— a very wide consensus— among both the Burmese and the international community, on how change can be achieved in Myanmar, and Nay Win Maung must at the very least be acknowledged as having played a significant part in establishing this consensus. Some, like me, and like many of the people mentioned in this article, would go as far as saying that he came up with the vision and worked, with great success, towards reaching a consensus around this vision.
This vision is pretty simple, and it was Nay Win Maung who convinced me, and many others of it, ten years ago. Myanmar faces issues that run very deep, and that for the most part can be boiled down to the fact that there is a worrying lack of capacity, among all the players, on all sides, in all fields (in banking, and in legal expertise, and in academia, as much as in politics). In this context, no solution can come from either denying how bad the situation is, as the military did, or thinking that it would be enough for the NLD to be in power, as the opposition did. The solution could only come from the military, the opposition, civil society, the media, the private sector, all citizens of Myanmar, including those identifying as members of an ethnic nationality, and those who want to see Myanmar succeed, among the international community, understanding the need to work with one another, in rebuilding Myanmar so as to make it the great nation all of us want it to be, and which there is no reason to think it will not indeed become.
This consensus is the reason why the military has allowed for such sweeping changes, in the last few years. This consensus is the reason why the NLD chose to field candidates in the 2012 elections, which then led to victory at the polls in 2015 and eventually forming a government in 2016. This consensus is the reason why civil society, the media and the private sector are all working so hard to contribute to developing Myanmar. This consensus is the reason why an entire generation of Myanmar youth is working so hard to educate itself, filling the gaps in capacity, one masters degree at a time. And I will argue that this consensus is the reason why, even in the face of the Rakhine crisis, the international community has understood that it had no better option than continuing to support Myanmar in the efforts described in this article.
It is not as if everything is perfect in the world of the New Myanmar, though. Too often, the military does not allow the space civilians need, for democracy, even a disciplined democracy, to flourish. Too often, the NLD does not listen to civil society, allows for worrying attacks on freedom of the press, and does not care to empower those with this “capacity”, these knowledge or skills needed to change Myanmar. Too often, civil society, the media, and citizens use their new freedoms in ways that are contrary to the dreams of a successful Myanmar. Too often the private sector continues with practices that are short-sighted and detrimental to the development of Myanmar. Too often, the international community behaves and expresses itself in ways that are legitimately seen as neocolonial, patronizing and outright insulting by the people of Myanmar.
If Nay Win Maung saw what Myanmar looks like now, in early 2018, he would probably be most impressed by the depth of changes (and yes, even since January 2012), and sad that so much remains to be done. Many of us think exactly that.
Getting Myanmar from where it is today to where the people of Myanmar would like it to be will take for all the citizens of Myanmar, and their friends, to work really hard, for many years to come. Among them, I am confident that the members of the Egress family, as they remember Nay Win Maung at the start of every year, will be doing their part.
Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.