Epiphanies from Win Tin

The late political prisoner on a lifetime of working for a free and democratic Myanmar.

When pro-democracy activist Win Tin was admitted to a Yangon hospital in early March, he almost certainly was wearing a blue, short-sleeved, button-down shirt. The garment was part of his uniform during his nearly 20 years as a political prisoner in Myanmar, a sentence he served for speaking out against the military regime that ruled the country for roughly five decades. When he was finally released in 2008, Win Tin refused to discard his prison uniform, pledging to wear a similar blue shirt until Myanmar's remaining political prisoners were discharged. (Though hundreds have been released since the country began experimenting with democratic reforms, dozens still remain behind bars.) He died on April 23, at the age of 84 or 85.

Win Tin was one of Myanmar's most prominent and outspoken political dissidents. A journalist by profession, Win Tin was already in his late 50s when he became one of the founders of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi. He was imprisoned in early 1989 after the 8888 uprising, a series of popular protests against the military government. Caged and tortured for most of the next two decades, Win Tin's health deteriorated: he lost a testicle due to an unsanitary prison operation and suffered two heart attacks. Still, he wrote when he could, even grinding up bricks with water to make ink to write poetry and political reflections on his cell wall. In 1996, the government added an additional seven years to his sentence after he smuggled a letter to the United Nations about the horrific conditions in Myanmar's detention facilities.

The country's longest-serving political prisoner, Win Tin was unexpectedly released in 2008, two years before Burma's 2010 national elections began the country's tenuous move from military governance to democratic rule. After his amnesty, Win Tin helped other formerly detained dissidents reintegrate into Burmese society and began working to transform NLD from an opposition movement to a functioning political party.

In February 2013, I spoke to Win Tin at the home of a supporter in Yangon; this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In July 1989, our party was almost gone because the whole leadership had gone to prison. During that time the NLD won the 1990 general election in a landslide. Yet the government removed all the parliamentary members who won. The generals made them flee the country, go to prison, or resign.

The regime sent so many political prisoners to jail, thousands of people, including myself. I spent 20 years in jail and they have never said they're sorry. Not to me, nor to my friends or to my family.

For 20 years, the people still supported Aung San Suu Kyi and the party. Our party was still intact, so the government finally agreed to have us register as a political party in January 2012. So we participated in the 2012 elections, and we won. 

There is a conflict between the Burmese government and the armed ethnic groups. For more than 50 years, there has been civil war. There is not a single day without gunshots. 

You cannot command reconciliation. Both sides have to make amends for the bad doings of the past. People think that the past is the past-- that you have to forgive or forget it -- but it cannot just come from the party. You need the people's consent.

Military leaders should atone for their past deeds. We don't want to make them feel ashamed, but they act like they've done nothing at all. That's the problem.

The ruling party cannot cheat like they did before because of international attention on Burma now. The whole world is looking at them. They could not do the same things in 2012 as they did [to manipulate] the 2010 elections.

We sent some young men to stand election in 2012. We didn't think they would win, but we said, "Go to get some experience, and that's all." But they won. Why? Because people supported them -- not only NLD members, but also new supporters. It's inevitable that the ruling party will lose in 2015. And I think we will win.

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The Pivot to Nothing

Why Tom Donilon's empty claims about America’s rebalancing to Asia obscure a dangerous reality.

The joke about the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" is that the only people who don't believe it is happening are in Asia. 

All over the world, America's friends and allies feel the ebbing of attention from their regions and problems. But they mistakenly believe that this reduction has resulted in greater attention elsewhere. So Iraq understands that President Barack Obama is indifferent to the violence that continues to burn in their country, but they assume he is increasing engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans understand that Obama is indifferent to the war still raging in their country, but assume he must be deeply involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of power in some other country America cares about more. Europeans see a president walking back from missile defense deployments and the Budapest Memorandum, which commits the United States to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, and believe that he has chosen to focus on Asia.

But Asian governments understand they're getting the same treatment as everyone else: trade negotiations without political investment by the White House, foreign policy that takes a back seat to domestic political wrangling, sporadic mania of involvement in foreign policy that achieves nothing, and lack of a strategy that either identifies common goals or elucidates the means to collectively achieve them.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, however, refuses to accept reality. In a wildly implausible op-ed in the Washington Post on the eve of Obama's current Asia trip, he argued that the pivot is alive and well. His opening argument that the administration is pivoting to Asia? "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of state had done since 1961." Not only does it actually suggest how little the pivot has achieved, since a trip five years ago is considered a signal achievement, but travel is the wrong metric for determining foreign-policy success. Countries visited is to foreign-policy success as job interviews are to employment: a necessary input, but no one's impressed by where you had your first interview if you didn't get the job.

That said, Donilon's description is actually a perfect illustration of the shortcomings of Obama's foreign policy, the hallmarks of which include these six elements:

1. Self-importance.

The first trip since 1961, you say! Amazing. The Obama White House promotes this fact as evidence of its superior understanding of the international order: No one else saw this coming! As Shadow Government's Asia hands have often pointed out, much of the Obama administration's pivot is actually carrying through on decisions made during George W. Bush's administration, such as shifting a greater proportion of the U.S. fleet to the Pacific. This Asia strategy is a continuation of its predecessor's, while claiming to be a departure of monumental significance.

2. Talking, not listening.

If the Obama White House had done its due diligence, it would have known that Asian governments were some of the Bush administration's biggest supporters -- and continue to be. The Obama White House might also have checked with America's Asian allies about whether this "grand strategic concept" would be beneficial. Most governments fear it goads China and may force the country into confrontation. Among the Asian countries in which the Pew Research Center conducted polling in 2013, the median rate of favorable views of the United States was 64 percent, but the rate was 58 percent for favorable views of China. Even in Australia, a long-standing ally of the United States, 40 percent of people polled think it's more important to have strong relations with the United States than China -- but 33 percent think the opposite. Governments in Asia don't want to have to choose between their main economic partner and their main security provider, and they wish the Obama administration hadn't put them in that position.

3. Symbolic gestures.

Hillary Clinton seemed to believe that "miles traveled" is the measure of a secretary of state's success, but her difficulty answering the question of her achievements in that position is its own refutation. Her successor, John Kerry, is evidently on the same travel awards program; he at least can claim devotion to a few key issues. But a trip by the secretary of state is actually of little consequence. The fact that Clinton said in Beijing on that first trip that the United States ought not to focus so much on Chinese human rights violations and restrictions on political freedoms of its people is conveniently left out in Donilon's op-ed -- but that statement resounded across Asia and beyond. Substance matters more than symbolism.

4. Underappreciation of the existing order.

If the United States were under attack, it's conceivable that the president might get the news from a Canadian voice -- not because Canadian troops would be burning Washington (again), but because the U.S. and Canadian militaries jointly protect the countries' airspace. The United States exports twice as much to Canada as to China, and since the 9/11 attacks, Canada and the United States have administered their border with a remarkable level of cooperation. The Obama White House takes for granted an order that its predecessors worked to construct; it assumes all of America's international advantages will continue to accrue if it does nothing to sustain or advance them. As a result, that international order is eroding.

5. Inattention to allies.

Donilon claims the United States is "modernizing its alliances" in Asia, but even that phrasing suggests its alliances are currently unsatisfactory. Getting South Korea and Japan to cooperate on defense policy -- they won't hold joint exercises, for example -- or on how to counter China would be a major modernization of America's alliances in Asia. Donilon recognizes that, but his tepid recommendation that "the president should follow up on his recent efforts to mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries" will hardly persuade countries that have seen their relations worsen during the Obama presidency. Asian allies know the Obama White House isn't going to solve their problems.

6. No better options.

A corollary of the Obama administration's belief that the international order will just maintain itself is that allies have no alternative than to do what the United States wants. So the White House balks at negotiating with Germany to continue participation in the Afghanistan mission, the logic being that if it's not in Berlin's immediate interest, it's not worth doing. This approach conveniently allows the Obama White House to know and care nothing about the domestic politics and problems of America's allies. But Canada surely notices that Clinton was rapt by Asia, rather than the country with which America shares values, an intertwined economy, common air defenses, a solemn pledge that an attack on one would be considered an attack on both, and, incidentally, a 5,525-mile border. How much will Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government risk to help a White House that continues to avoid a decision on integrating their two countries' energy potential? The United States shouldn't take for granted that Ottawa will continue to do things that are in the U.S. interest. It's threatening to forgo the Keystone XL pipeline for a westward route to unilaterally deliver fuel to Asian markets, for example, and it's less likely to keep troops in Afghanistan or pony up fighter planes for Baltic air policing.

* * *

Countries with small margins for error and dependence on the protection of others -- like America's allies in Asia -- tend to have very sensitive antennas to the potential for abandonment. The Obama White House may think that its fecklessness on Syria has no consequence or that its downward negotiation of what constitutes an end to Iranian nuclear weapons programs has no downside. The administration seems genuinely to believe that the president proudly insisting that "I don't bluff" is adequate to reassure countries nervous about America's willingness to make good on promises. It isn't. The pivot to Asia is one more instance of the Obama White House patting itself on the back while America's allies fret about the country's lack of seriousness.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images