“Nation-Building Is No Mean Task”: A Conversation with Khin Zaw Win

By Tom Zoellner, Aida BaghernejadOctober 25, 2021

“Nation-Building Is No Mean Task”: A Conversation with Khin Zaw Win
KHIN ZAW WIN was imprisoned from 1994 to 2005 for what the government called “seditious writings” and his human rights work in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Now he has reason to be worried again, but he is refusing to stay quiet.

Another coup took place in his home country on February 1, 2021. The armed forces declared the previous fall’s general election fraudulent and arrested State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on corruption charges. What followed were persecution and mass killings reminiscent of the 2017 atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. The National Police Force is starting to fragment. Some of the police are refusing to crack down on civilians and are joining civilian militias. Over 90 journalists have been arrested.

LARB spoke to Win in July for a podcast sponsored by the Thomas Mann House, but the internet quality in Myanmar has been poor and we were unable to use the audio. We are publishing the transcript here.


TOM ZOELLNER: You’ve written a lot about what you call the post-ideological nature of politics in Myanmar, where political parties don’t cling to a particular ideology but ebb and flow with the personalities of the people at the top of those parties.

KHIN ZAW WIN: I’m not an ideologue. I think the absence of ideology really speaks of weakness. For instance, the National League for Democracy was the biggest party. If you ask them, what is the ideology, you get a wishy-washy thing. And why did the coup happen? We had a very strong nationalist, right-wing face. The army happens to be a big player. What is missing in Myanmar is the intellectual dimension to the resistance. It can’t just be people going out in the streets or carrying a gun in the jungle and resisting the army. I use the word fascism. You know, some people don’t like it. But that is what we are faced with.

AIDA BAGHERNEJAD: Well, about that military fascism. When you’ve said — I’m going to quote here from some of your writings — there is no doubt, you said, about the military’s intentions and methods to quell the rebellion using maximum lethal force and the fear that it generates. That’s a terrifying statement. And I want to ask you, why, then, do people in Myanmar still protest? Why did they risk their lives at such great hazard to themselves?

Democracy and these liberal values were introduced to Burma very early on. We had elections and political parties before the war, even when we were a British colony, so I have to make this point in talking to audiences: democracy was not initiated after 1988 with the return of elections. It was resumed. What they call Generation Z grew up with the internet and freedom. They could travel and study abroad. And so they are at the forefront of opposing the military coup and the dictatorship. And they are suffering the most.

AB: You were a prisoner of conscience for 11 years. And you wrote us that you compared your situation, being imprisoned in the far north of the country, to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. What led you to this comparison?

So in The Magic Mountain, I think he had tuberculosis, and so he had to go to a sanatorium on this mountain. And then he began to ruminate on the world. So it gives vantage points — and that’s why he called it a “magic mountain,” so that we can ruminate and reflect [on] what is happening all around us. So when I was in prison, the place where I was is very near to China, and I taught a course there (for fellow prisoners). I just rounded it up by saying that, you know, there’s a book by a German author called The Magic Mountain, and I described it to them. That prison was our mountain. It was a very good time for deep reflection.

TZ: As you’ve probably gathered, we have a high regard for Thomas Mann on this podcast. And so it makes us very happy that he is a voice that speaks through the ages. We in the West have been sort of primed to think of Aung San Suu Kyi as almost a tragic story, a hero of democracy who then supported violence, oppression of another minority. It makes us wonder: Was this a case of using the banner of democracy in a cynical way? Is this just sort of a highway for people to gain power and then do what they want?

Her party was elected by a landslide in 2015, and according to the Constitution, she couldn’t become president. So a law was passed to appoint her as state counsellor. It is a new title. And she said, she’s going to be above the president and all these things. And that was the pivotal moment. And that was the fateful moment for her, for her party, and for the country. Because when she came to power, she completely forgot about all the values and the principles and the concepts that she had talked about unceasingly in the past — no human rights and rule of law and all that — and just became another officeholder. And so the methods that she followed was authoritarian rule with a small, tight circle of people around her. Well, it might be you could even call it a throwback to monarchic times now, but it all went wrong.

TZ: I wanted to ask you where you are talking to us from, if you can tell us without risk to yourself.

The study of my house. There have been lots of restrictions and limitations on the internet. We can’t use Facebook. The ministry is very worried about social media, you know, like the Chinese. I think in the five years preceding, the number of Facebook users in Burma has increased exponentially. At least 70 percent of the population can use it because phones are cheap and the connections are cheap.

AB: You describe the current unrest as the first social media crisis of Myanmar. To what degree do you see social media as a revolutionary tool? And has it not also contributed to many, many instances of suffering in the country, for example, in regards to some of the minorities who were attacked?

This is a mixed story. When the attacks against Muslims and the Rohingya first happened, social media wasn’t that widespread. On this ongoing debate about social media, I think, if you put it in the balance at a time like this, social media does have an added advantage. Maybe it’s not much. And it has its drawbacks, too.

TZ: You’ve made the fairly chilling statement that politics in Myanmar has come to inciting racist phobias and demonizing the other. And I have to say, as an American listener, I can’t help but map my own country’s politics onto this, and to see echoes of what’s happening in your country in what’s happening in mine, which is terrifying. In your studies of democracy across the globe, is this in the fascist playbook?

Before all this happened, there were left-wing writers and scholars comparing Burma and Cambodia, and especially the backlash against the Muslims in those countries, as well as in southern Thailand. So when I use that phrase “fascist,” I know how the people in authority employed it — that was what during the first term of democracy from 2010 to 2015, when it was marked by attacks (against minorities).

AB: Myanmar or Burma is a multicultural and multiethnic country. Do you see a path forward for peaceful coexistence after almost 100 years of political turmoil?

That is our task at hand. And that is my hope. Of course, it differs from that of the military and the major parties. And I think what evolves is really the crux of the problem, you know, and the crux of what we have to do. Nation-building is no mean task; it is a very difficult task for even the most well intentioned and the well educated. We don’t have a nation. No, we don’t have a nation. What is going to happen is the ethnicities will train their young people, men and women, collect as many modern weapons as they can, so that they don’t get bothered. There will be a kind of stalemate, a very messy solution. Not the answer we expected. But a bit of realism is always good, I suppose.


Tom Zoellner is LARB’s politics editor and the author of The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America.

Aida Baghernejad is a freelance cultural journalist, moderator, and podcaster who writes and speaks in German and English about music and food for all kinds of regional, national, and international publications. She is co-host on the English-language podcast 55 Voices of Democracy from the Thomas Mann House and Los Angeles Review of Books and founder and host of the podcast Pasta & Politics, produced in collaboration with Edition F.

LARB Contributors

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.
Aida Baghernejad is a freelance cultural journalist, moderator, and podcaster who writes and speaks in German and English about music and food for all kinds of regional, national, and international publications. She is co-host on the English-language podcast 55 Voices of Democracy from the Thomas Mann House and Los Angeles Review of Books and founder and host of the podcast Pasta & Politics, produced in collaboration with Edition F. In 2019, she received the International Music Journalism for the best German-language text of the year, was nominated for the Listen to Berlin Award in the journalism category in 2019 and 2020 and for the Alternative Media Award in the power category in 2021. Mostly she lives in Berlin, sometimes in London, but mostly on the internet.


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