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Myanmar in transition

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Zeya Thu, alumnus of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung. Copyright: Zey Thu.

April 2, 2012
The year 2011 brought remarkable changes for Myanmar/Burma which some described as the most fundamental in several decades. Even after a new semi-civilian government replaced the old dictatorial military regime in early 2011 few could foresee the series of reforms that would follow. Yet, as Myanmar/Burma opens up to the outside world it faces huge challenges on all fronts. One of the major problems is the lack of qualified and well-trained people to rebuild the once prosperous country.

Therefore the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Southeast Asia provides scholarships for MA programs at Universities in Thailand since 2004. One of them is Mr. Zeya Thu who graduated from Chulalongkorn University “Master of Arts in International Development Studies” in 2006. In an Interview with hbs he gives an account of the recent developments.

What did you do since your graduation? Was the Masters program useful and helpful for your work?

I have been an editor-in-charge at the local weekly newspaper “The Voice” since 2004. So, when I graduated in 2006, I went back to my country and resumed my work. It was my old job but I got new skills. Since development studies is a multi-disciplinary subject looking at the country’s development from various viewpoints, this helps me a lot in my job as an editor since my understanding became more thorough and deep. I am a better journalist now, I would say, thanks to the Program.

When I returned, a new local NGO called Myanmar Egress was just established. It is a combination of capacity development center and a think tank and I was invited to teach several subjects including: ‘Development Theory and Practice’, ‘Leadership’, and ‘Mass Communication Theories’. I would not be able to teach ‘development’ without the Program. My students include people from all sorts of life in Myanmar such as politicians, business people, students and public servants.

I am also a columnist at the “Voice”, and comment on development and political issues that the country is facing, and the Program at Bangkok enrich myself with knowledge and lenses. I have written two books in local language, namely, ‘Wealth of a Nation: Development Strategies and Tactics’ and ‘In search of Leadership: The story of Aung San’ in 2010 before the election. The first one discusses development issues and how Myanmar can be developed with special emphasis on East Asian experience. The second one is a leadership book with Aung San, the independence hero and father of Aung San Suu Kyi as the case study. These books became bestsellers and people including politicians said they are helpful in the transition period.

Furthermore, going to Thailand for study was my first trip abroad. It broadened my horizon and I became more confident not only academically but also personally.

How did you experience the changes in Myanmar/Burma last year? Were you surprised?

After the 100 days of new government, reforms came flooding the country. Some events were rather unexpected such as the halt of the controversial dam in the north of the country bordering China. This was not just a national issue but also a foreign affairs issue related to a very big neighbor, future Superpower and major trade partner and largest investor in the country. It looks like the country is in a hurry to compensate for the period of waste in the past. But, I am afraid to say that for the reforms to take place successfully, we need ‘capacity’ or ‘human resources’ in every sector of the country: public service, private sector, civil society, everywhere. Without capable human resources, reforms will not happen effectively no matter how good the intentions are.

How did the situation change for you as a Journalist since last year?

I am busier. Journalists are busier. In the past, there were some taboo subjects that we could not publish such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Human Rights. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is a cover girl and a Human Rights Commission has been set up. Although there is still a censorship board which censors the media, rules are more relaxed and we have more room to maneuver. That means we can cover a lot more than in the past and media people are busier.

People depend more on the media for the information. In the past, when the papers hit the newsstands, the news printed were no longer news because it got rotten in the censorship process and people already knew them via word of mouth. Now, the news in the newspapers are real news, so people read papers more. Circulation of papers jumps by leaps and bounds. We feel more responsible because people depend more on us.

The president explicitly mentioned media as fourth pillar of the country after the three government pillars, namely, the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judiciary branch, in his inauguration speech. This was unheard of in our recent history and quite unexpected for many people, including me. To take the role of the fourth pillar, media people have to be strong. They have to be equipped with skills and knowledge to play the role of the fourth pillar. So, for example, in our office, we are upgrading our journalists with new skills such as how to report elections, political journalism, etc.

What are your future plans?

I would like to contribute to ‘idea generation’ for the development of the country as we need development ideas very urgently. I will write, I will talk, I will teach. I will contribute to creating high quality ‘policy debate’ as the higher the quality of policy debate, the more the country can formulate better policies. If we can generate ideas, every sector will benefit from it.

How should non-profit organization such as the Heinrich Boell Stiftung support the democratic transition process? What is your opinion?

Hbs was one of the first organizations to help the people inside the country when it was not popular to do so. As a fledgling democracy or transitional country, we need a helping hand from friends like hbs. Of course, the capacity development is a priority area as we lack capacity in many areas. For example, you can invite our parliamentarians to German federal parliament to learn from your experiences though the situation might be different. Capacity development for civil service is an urgent issue as well. Media, of course, is still in its infancy and needs exposure and training, too. The list will go on and on as we are weak in many sectors. It might depend on the NGO’s priorities as well.


Zeya Thu

Zeya Thu, a former fellow of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung and an editor-in-charge at the weekly regional newspaper "The Voice". In 2006 he graduated from the Chulalongkorn University, his master's degree in "International Development Studies".