A supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy on Electioon Day, 2015, Rangoon, Myanmar. CREDIT: Van Royko
A supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy on Electioon Day, 2015, Rangoon, Myanmar. CREDIT: Van Royko

Democracy and the Deep State in Myanmar

Apr 26, 2017

In this fascinating interview, Maureen Aung-Thwin, founder of the Burma Project at Open Society Foundations, describes how the Project helped Burma's transition to democracy starting in 1993, and what the situation is today. Our aim was to put ourselves out of a job, says Aung-Thwin, and you could say we succeeded--but there's still a lot of work to do.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Maureen Aung-Thwin. She is the founder of the Burma Project at Open Society Foundations. She is based here in New York City.

Maureen, it's great to have you here at Carnegie Council.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Thank you very much, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about the Burma Project. When did it start, what were you trying to do, and have you made any progress so far?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: We started in 1993 when I came on as a consultant for OSI as it was known, Open Society Institute. It's the same thing, by the way, as Open Society Foundations. It was the beginning of the foundation as a structure, as an entity in New York.

It was just a few years after the nationwide uprising in Burma, now called Myanmar, in 1988. Typically, George Soros and colleagues at the Institute, they are very aware of what's happening. For him, there's a revolutionary moment, and for him it happened in 1988, so [he said] "we have to do something."

It took a few years, but Aryeh Neier, then the president of OSI, and he discussed what we can do. I just happened to have come back from Asia, so I consulted with them, and I went to the border, where about 7,000 dissident students fled after they had demonstrated, and there was a crackdown, killing several thousand of them.

I came up with a plan after having visited the border, and I said, "Well, you might do this." Mostly it was helping with some kind of humanitarian aid, but it was also helping seed some NGOs—we call them non-governmental organizations now, but basically then it was a few students who wanted to do a specific project. Part of it was to keep alive but also to keep the so-called revolution going against the military rule.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say seeding do you mean funding or advice or both?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: No, we're talking mostly funding.

DEVIN STEWART: What were the NGOs trying to do, and were they successful?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: These were many incipient NGOs started by Burmese dissidents who didn't really know how to run organizations, but they really wanted to start, say, newsletters, publications. There were women's groups who wanted to do some trainings on how to deal with, say, financially how to run an organization or how to deal with women's issues. Then you had students' groups that wanted to keep the flame alive; it was mostly through publications they did.

There were also medical projects at the border. There were many doctors who fled to the border. There are lots of needs at the border because many of the ethnic groups who have been fighting the government since 1949, since independence, they are settled along the border there, and many of them have no services.

Education was a very big one because we knew that the students' education was disrupted by the uprising. So that was a very big focus of ours.

DEVIN STEWART: Since Myanmar's transition to democracy in 2010, what has become of the Burma Project? What is the status of the project now?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: You asked earlier also whether we had succeeded. In a way, it is not us succeeding, but Burma was a very closed society, one of the most closed, compared to North Korea and Belarus, and it basically opened up in 2010. I wouldn't say it became a democracy. Up until today I wouldn't say it's a total democracy, maybe not even half, because most of the power still resides with the military.

The Burma Project—this is sort of like we have to work ourselves out of a job, so this was exactly what we were waiting for. It took a long time. Mr. Soros likes to say that he learned one thing by being involved in Burma, that "it's a good thing to back a lost cause for a long time." Soros is known for rushing into something, and there's a revolutionary moment, and if it hasn't then worked out or succeeded in like three years he says, "Oh, okay, tried that, been there." But in Burma he had to stick to it.

One reason partially was because Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy fighter and icon of this whole movement, was frequently under house arrest, and you couldn't just give up while she was still under house arrest. It would give the wrong optic to the military. That's one of the reasons that he stuck it out. I stuck it out because I wanted to help liberate my country.

DEVIN STEWART: Did you and your colleagues have a sense that things were getting better and that a more democratic situation was possible, or were there times of hopelessness?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: There were mostly times of hopelessness. As far as seeing the change coming, it totally caught me by surprise. At the same time, when you look back in hindsight, you think of the kind of pressures that we like to think we put, international pressure—we're one of the few, Burma Project was one of the few groups actually funding international advocacy.

You have to keep a cause like Burma in the news. You have to make the world aware of it. So we had a lot of proxy supporters—students; there were all these coalitions of university students. We funded organizations that kept the news on Burma visible. We were very lucky to have coincided with the birth or maturation of the Internet, so we were one of the first organizations to keep the world informed through listservs and online newsletters and that kind of thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say 2010 was the pivotal year for dramatic change on the ground?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: It was the beginning of the dramatic change because that's when the military junta—this junta is not just one strong guy; there is a strong guy called Than Shwe, and he is still manipulating from the background somewhere. He's actually still in situ.

There is a group of generals who sort of run the show, and some are more prominent than others. Apparently they decided—again in hindsight, you go back, you realize that they felt their backs were to the wall for a lot of reasons. We like to think it is not only us, but there is also the world, globalization, they just couldn't keep up. You can't keep a country like Burma closed in the age of the Internet. The whole country, for example, is on Facebook, including the government. They think that is the Internet. That's another point.

We did not see it quite coming. In hindsight, though, we heard that they had reached out to the Americans. When Obama came in, he said, "All you dictators, if you open your"—I've forgotten the great phrase he used, "if you open up your fists, we'll extend our hand" or something like that, and they did.

DEVIN STEWART: You were born in Myanmar?


DEVIN STEWART: When did you move to the United States?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: I moved to the United States a long time ago for college, so it was way before—well, the military rule was there, but it was way before I became an activist or involved in this because one never did anything that might get your relatives in the country in danger. So none of us outside, even though we were living in freedom—we were too scared to make public statements and all that.

It all changed in 1988 when the whole country revolted, so to speak. We figured, "Wow, if they can do it, then we're obligated to do it."

DEVIN STEWART: So the 1988 Generation inspired you.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Yes. All of us outside, not just me, but there were many of us who had done things secretly, say, but we came into the open, and it was all right.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great to hear. Here we are in 2017. We just had the by-elections. In 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power. Huge milestone. How do you think Aung San Suu Kyi is doing as—I think her title is state counsellor, is that the correct title?—essentially the leader of the country? How do you think she's doing so far?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: She got mixed reviews after a year of being in office for her party, the National League for Democracy. This month is actually the one-year commemoration. But I think it's a little hard to nail down and say it's all negative because she was handed—people forget. The expectations are just out of the ballpark. Everyone expects the change to a democratic, more equal, jobs, all that, within a year.

I would think the expectations were more from the international side—eager investors, people wanting to go and exploit Burma. The people inside, the ones who voted for her—and I'm still amazed, because I actually commute, I go back and forth; I have a place in Rangoon as well—they are pretty patient, and they know what they want. I might say their hatred of the military and the military rule is more than their exasperation of 12 months of an amateur democracy government, so I think we should learn from their patience.

But again, I'm talking about mostly urban folk who have had a chance to earn lots of money from the many more visitors, the taxis on the street—there's no meters; they just charge whatever they want—and that kind of thing. Real estate has gone over the roof because suddenly there's huge demand for apartments.

As far as real change, it's very hard to do real change when the institutions haven't changed. Most laws need to be either thrown out or amended, and that is very difficult to do with a brand-new parliament. By the way, the parliament is filled with activists who are just learning on the job to be parliamentarians. So all that's going on.

I would say as just an observer and again supporter of the movement—after all, we've supported it since 1988—is that I think Daw Suu, as we call Aung San Suu Ky, needs better PR advice; maybe like, "Hey, why don't you brag about this?" or "Why don't you address the people on radio once a week, once a month?" That kind of thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the criticism toward Aung San Suu Kyi, are you saying it's more coming from the international community than people in Myanmar?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: I think the loudest is coming from the international community. There are people inside Myanmar who are also very critical of her, but again—now you're going to think I'm a conspiracy theorist, and I am a little bit—I think there is a "deep state" conspiracy happening.

I think that the military, which has ruled since 1962 when they took over, made up mostly of very hard-nosed, conservative, Burman men, I might add—then that's another thing about cultural challenges of the Burman males who feel like they're entitled to rule—they are grabbing at anything they can within this so-called "democratic" space that they help create now, but they still control it, even though they lost the elections. It doesn't mean they don't control the money, the power, the cronies, the economic monopolies.

And they have 400,000 armed troops. It's a very huge army for 54 million people. I think Indonesia has maybe a population of 250 million—I can't remember—and I think they're trying to decrease their army from 150,000 to even less, just to give you the proportion. And there is no external threat in Burma.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. This deep state—the military absolutely does have a lot of influence in daily life and politics and the future of the country. Can you describe some of the manifestations of this influence?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: The difference is stark. If you'd been there before 2010—I couldn't because I was on the blacklist for 20 years, so I didn't get permission to go back until 2012. In any case, we were involved in many programs inside—secretly, of course—funding people going in and out, getting news out, and that kind of thing, and you couldn't trust anything. Everything you assumed was bugged—cars, walls, furniture, you name it.

Most of Burmese social life happens in tea shops outside. They just sit and drink tea, they gossip. So you just assume that every fourth person in the tea shop is an informant; every taxi person is an informant. They get paid for that. China does the same thing, but China can afford a lot more than the Burmese can. But you also do it out of self-preservation.

Flash forward to 2010. I go in in 2012. Everybody is sort of giddy. You don't worry about informants and bugs and stuff. Part of it is we don't care anymore, or people don't care anymore. I'm pretty sure that there are still informants, a lot of them. I think all the security guys who are in the lobby of my apartment, I think they probably have to write a report, who's going in and out—if they can figure it out. But even so they have to do something for—I'm sure they're getting paid off for this. And taxi drivers especially, the ones who are bilingual.

DEVIN STEWART: You're saying that people care less about it because why? There are fewer consequences or what?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Yes. Fewer consequences unless you're doing—there are still consequences, for example, for journalists who are just highly critical; there are these old laws that I was saying that they dust off and are still using—some of them are not so old—and then they were sort of tweaked during this reform movement, so since 2010 even they tweaked some of those laws. But they can still land someone in jail for purportedly defaming somebody else on Facebook, say.

DEVIN STEWART: Defaming whom?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: It's almost anybody actually, somebody you don't like, but it's usually somebody who wrote something on Facebook again criticizing you. So it's either the government putting in somebody who wrote a criticism of them on Facebook or in a newspaper article with an opinion piece that they said something. There is a very courageous journalist who criticized this nationalist monk because of his comment about a brazen assassination of a very prominent lawyer a couple of months ago. The journalist, for example, he didn't even say it himself. He quoted someone else saying, "This monk does not deserve to be a monk because"—forget about monk values; it's an inhuman value to actually revel in an innocent person's assassination. That's basically what it was. So they get this journalist repeating somebody else's statement because he agreed with it, but also he happens to be known to speak his voice in any case in his publication.

DEVIN STEWART: What happened?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: So he was sued under one of those laws. There are two lawsuits, and some judges have weighed in and said, "No, that has no standing" and whatnot. But the judiciary is still very gray and not firm and not reformed, so that is part of the problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Who filed the lawsuit?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Let's see. I'm not even sure a monk can file a lawsuit. I'm going to have to look it up, whether it's a publication that filed it, but there is a lawsuit in Mandalay and there is a lawsuit in Rangoon against this young man.

He is so frightened. He was frightened because he was also threatened, and he has put his wife and child to live in a safer, unknown place. That is pretty terrible for 2017. I just saw him last month.

DEVIN STEWART: Who is threatening him? Do we know?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: He gets all kinds of threats, anonymous threats, and these real lawsuits as well.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the relationship between these nationalist monks and the military?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: There is a real relationship. Again, whether somebody can actually show you the papers . . . but there has been quite a case made that the former president, Thein Sein, who ruled the first reform government, actually aided and abetted these nationalist monks to send—they collected like a million signatures wanting to submit to the parliament to insist on certain anti-Muslim laws ostensibly to protect their Buddhist women from marrying Muslims and then therefore having to convert. They called it "marriage and religious laws."

It is interesting how some women then spoke up. Not everybody is just sitting there docile. They said, "It isn't for the monks to tell us what we can do and who we can marry." There is this link that started out in the beginning of this nationalist movement with the military, and we know that it serves the military to keep that pot stirred.

DEVIN STEWART: This cooperation between the military and the monks, is the goal to create a sense of fear or insecurity among the population that justifies the value of the military to begin with? What are they trying to achieve?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Definitely, yes. It always serves the military, who by the way wrote the last 2008 constitution which gives them the 25 percent seats in parliament without even having to vote, non-elected seats. It also gives them the constitutional right to have a coup if they think that the country is unstable. So it's a constitutional coup. They can actually just change the government. Until they amend or change the constitution, it is still law. Of course, it behooves them to keep [the country] either really unstable or hint at instability or just put that fear in people that "if you push us too hard, guess what we can do legally."

DEVIN STEWART: In thinking about the general stability of the country, would you say that achieving some kind of peace with the ethnic groups and ethnic militias is one of the top priorities, and how is that going?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: That is the top priority. It's been the top priority ever since Aung San Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, the first leader of Burma, who was supposed to be the first democratic leader, but I don't know if you remember, he got assassinated before he could officially take over power.

That desire for what they call a "genuine federal union" so the ethnic states and the ethnic groups that live mostly in those states but there is lots of overlaps and stuff also, that they have some kind of an autonomy or home rule or at least be able to teach the mother tongue in their schools, that kind of thing. That has been desired and aspired to since independence in 1948.

The military put that as a big goal, and so right before the NLD won their victory a few years before, they convened a big peace conference, and then sort of like gun-to-the-head told the ethnic groups, "You've got to sign this," and about eight of them signed, so there was a whole bunch of them who did not sign. Now Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said, "Okay, we are going to continue this process that the military started, and we're going to try to get everybody on board."

It is difficult. The next meeting keeps getting postponed. It is supposed to happen next month. It is a real problem because the ethnic leaders are different from the ethnic leaders at independence, but in a way they know a lot more. They know about the extractives industry, for example, the resource curse.

Burma is really rich in jade and natural gas and all that, and a lot of that is in the ethnic states. So they are much more savvy about production and getting revenue-sharing than some of their forebears were. In a way it's a little tougher maybe to have equal rights and a shared economy and shared revenue, so it's going to be a more difficult thing. Of course, Rakhine state is another, that's the state where they've been having the Muslim problems.

DEVIN STEWART: That is where the Rohingya are, in Rakhine. What do you make of that situation? Should it be a higher priority for Aung San Suu Kyi to resolve, or is she doing all she can?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: I think it has to be a top priority. I never saw it coming. It obviously simmered. It is a country that after colonial rule, for example, and the British brought in a lot of South Asian laborers—so there's a lot of residue from those foreigners who took away our jobs and exploited us. At one point, Rangoon was known as an Indian city or South Asian city. There is a lot of this feeling and animosity and outright racism actually and lots of prejudice.

Combine that with the nationalist, pro-Buddhist movement of the monks saying that outsiders are a threat to Buddhism. Burma is one of the last really genuinely observant countries. It is genuine Buddhism. It is not just like Christmas once a year kind of thing where you go to the pagoda; it's really a daily thing. It reaches somewhere deep.

The economy is still not fixed. You see how it has resonated around the world. You always like to blame the outsider, the darker one, the migrant.

Going back to your question about Aung San Suu Kyi doing all she can, I'm not quite sure what her options are given that she is a politician. Like she likes to remind people, "I am no longer a democracy icon; I'm a politician." But I think she has enough moral authority to have pressed the envelope a bit. She would have had the backing of all of the international community, and now they are criticizing her, saying she is not doing enough, she hasn't spoken out. She apparently feels that she can't speak out.

There is some measure of positive things happening, though. She is trying to implement rule of law or just say, look, without mentioning, there are ways you can say—you don't say "Rohingya," but you say, "Okay, you know, everyone deserves a right to citizenship" or a right to this, a right to that, and then you do it that way. She needs to do a lot more of that and not be so cautious.

In the 2015 election that her party won overwhelmingly, there were no Muslim candidates, not that there were no candidates wanting to run, but she controlled who ran the party list.

DEVIN STEWART: Why does she feel she can't speak up more?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: I think she's trying to keep things calm vis-à-vis the military. That is still the biggest threat I think to her legitimacy. They have all the power, and they still really control the country. If it's to their advantage to keep the country on edge and perceived to be unstable, then they can roil this Muslim thing anytime they want, which is very easy, because there are a lot of Muslim hardliners in addition to the Buddhist monks who are the power brokers in Rakhine state, and they don't want the Rohingyas, who they consider illegitimate and all that—they think they've gotten undue attention also. So there are a lot of different things being played out.

Again, that serves the military because the military can say, "If there is any problem, we're the only ones who can come and solve it." So she wants to keep that as not used as possible, if you know what I mean.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. Can you speak a little bit about the military's influence on the economy as well? You mentioned earlier the cronies. What types of deals are the generals brokering in the background?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: The generals have been brokering deals ever since they came into power. All of the country, land, is owned by the state. But then, guess who runs the state? For all these years until 2010 and when people started thinking, Okay, we have to now look at it democratically; can you imagine what land rights are like? So between 2010 and when Suu Kyi's government came into power a year ago, you can imagine. There were all sorts of land grabs and signing over this and concessions. Some of that is being sort of unraveled now, but it's difficult.

They're military, they're not businesspeople, but they are in the pay of cronies. Cronies would be businesspeople who need military backing to be able to get certain sorts of land to do their business, and they do the kickback, and everybody gets rich but the people.

For example, the jade industry: Global Witness did this amazing report in 2015 where they estimated that in 2014 alone, that one year, the industry got, the jade mines got $31-32 billion of revenue. That's a huge amount. Some people think that is way over the top and can't be true. Even if it was half, $15 billion, really? A year, mind you. And they only declare for tax purposes—that industry makes about $200 million legitimately in a jade auction they do every year. That is when the government says, "Oh, okay, so many big chunks of jade were sold," and then here's the taxes on the revenue, so it's about $200 million.

But think of the actual money that they earn, mostly going to China, of course, because Chinese just love Burmese jade. It's higher priced than diamonds and gold and things.

DEVIN STEWART: The Chinese are also involved with other types of deals in Burma as well with the military involved. Can you talk a little bit about the influence of Chinese state-owned enterprises or other entities in terms of projects?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Of course, we at Open Society, part of our international advocacy was to call for boycotting Burma, for sanctions, for not doing business with the regime. And since the regime had their hands in every pot, you can't do business with any Burmese company, individuals as well as companies.

Then, of course, the West joined in—not the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), not the regional group in Asia, but the big traders and the big countries did. So that just left China to go to, and China just sits right there, needing a warm-water port, needing land, needing a market, so they just flooded Burma all these decades with very cheap Chinese goods. Chinese goods that they sold in Burma, small things, like scissors or knives or cans of this and that, Thais wouldn't buy that; it's not good enough. But they could dump it in Burma.

So Burma never got to have an industry of anything, manufacturing industry, land was gone. The military allowed any Chinese individual to come in and, I don't know, just live in Burma without any special papers and whatnot, so you had this sort of invasion of this overpopulated country coming to this rich, fertile, southern neighbor.

Very soon, like right now, if you haven't been to Mandalay recently, it's basically a Chinese city—everybody says that—in look, in who's dealing, business, the bazaars, what's being sold, and they're saying that more and more about almost all the Northern area. But there is big potential for backlash. In the 1960s there were a lot of anti-Chinese race riots, so that is always also looming in people's heads that you push that too much and that could start up again.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, the next big election is in 2020. Do you see the country progressing toward more federalism? Do you see democracy evolving? What do you see for the future of the country?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: My hope is that democracy will be evolving. The parliamentarians have to get more revved up about changing the laws that need to be changed. We need a range of people running for not just the NLD but the 88 Generation, which is another group of activists. They're finally—not all of them, but the core of them have decided to form a new party, and basically it will be I think a more democratic party than, say, the military proxy party.

They gave a very interesting interview recently, and they said, "You know, we think there should be more than one party carrying the flag of democracy." I totally agree because the NLD, as strong as it is, is vulnerable to dirty tricks and all sorts of things. The military party that took this huge loss, they do a lot of things to keep people from voting. It's just like the States actually—registration; you put the little tick outside the box and it's not counted anymore.

My hope is that democracy will strengthen, and the NLD will get its act together more, better, and the ethnic groups will also field parties. A lot of them are democratic, and they believe in federal union and democratic ways. I want them to get stronger. They mostly voted for the NLD in 2015. We expected the ethnic parties to actually get a lot more votes, but at the very last moment I think they panicked and thought, You know what? We better vote for NLD just to make sure that the military doesn't win. The extent of the hatred for military rule is quite amazing.

What I'm worried about, though, is that the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, he is pretty savvy. He has reinvented himself; he's a kinder, gentler, English-speaking, Europe-traveling —he's going to Germany this week—military ruler who doesn't have to act uncouth like they used to. He just basically doesn't have to do very much, and democracy is very messy, especially with the poor NLD having to grapple with the first year of all these demands and the deep state. I think he is going to make a big run. We all know he is going to make a big run in 2020.

DEVIN STEWART: With the military party?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: He can do it several ways. He can actually get himself appointed as one of the two vice-presidents; it is a very complicated way how they elect vice-presidents, and the military bloc gets to nominate one without consulting with anybody. If you've got one of two, if anything happens to the president—it's a little complicated because now it's a state counsellor as well who is over the president. But the constitution as it is now makes it very easy for a reform military person to take over.

I have to say I'm disappointed in a lot of internationals, analysts as well—we're talking about political scientists and, of course, businesspeople and all in the international world. They would rather have a predictable reform military guy—they may not say it, by the way, but I know in my gut that they really do—versus this democracy activist-turned-politician, very committed, brilliant, but stubborn lady called Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's conclude with what's the future for you and the Burma Project itself, Maureen.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: The Burma Project, as I think I mentioned, we started over 20 years ago addressing the manifestation of the uprising. I'd like to think that we backed the—we didn't have a roadmap of how to do and who to back and what, but because of the kind of values and the kind of approaches that Open Society does—it's for trainings to show people their rights, legal defense, or showing public defenders how to stand up for farmers, or how to train farmers on what their rights are and how to go to court.

A huge focus in the Burma Project was scholarships because these young people had their education interrupted by the 1988 uprising. So we had a big focus on that. Then, supporting the NGOs along the borders, and some of them had a lot of connections inside, so when 2010 came and the country opened up, a lot of our people did not rush there to go work for Japanese banks and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank and all; they actually are heading NGOs or they entered parliament or they are now creating—think tanks happen to be a very popular thing, and we see some of that in the later years.

As far as the Burma Project, our goal as in à la Open Society practice is a closed country opens and then we set up a local foundation with a local board, local staff, and they will decide the strategy of where the country goes and where our Open Society funding goes. So actually Burma Project has evolved. We've become the butterfly that is now the foundation.

I have to say I was sort of tempted because I could say, "Oh, I've spent two decades; let's go and run that show." No. The torch has to pass to a new generation.

Also, it's really stressful living 24/7 in Rangoon, even though it's the city of my birth. I can't do it anymore. So what I'm doing is I still will be commuting. I still have a place there. I've narrowed my focus to a few priorities and a few issues that I want to spend my own time on.

I have to say this is a very nice benefit we get at Open Society. As long as you're working there, they match you three to one for philanthropy. So you can give to NGOs here, 501(c)(3), a non-profit in America, or you can create a gift fund and take up to the cap. So I've done that the last 10 years, so I have my own gift fund. I am going to concentrate on a couple of topics.

I find the culture in Burma very difficult to even acknowledge there's a problem—domestic violence, for example. There are some NGOs focusing on it, but still it's very tiny.

This sounds really ambitious, but the patriarchy is just so in all its manifestations, and the cultural support it gets by a certain type of Burman Buddhism, I'm afraid—people need to be made aware of everybody's rights. Culturally it is really hard to change mindsets, but I think that is what is going to be needed. Those are the areas that I am going to be looking into myself.

Also, protection of people who are still put away for speaking out against authority, criticizing. It is not as bad as the Philippines for example and, "Oh, we'll take care of this drug problem" and thousands of people are just exterminated, but people have also disappeared in Burma.

This prominent lawyer that I mentioned earlier, assassinated in daylight at the just-renovated Rangoon International Airport coming back from being part of an official delegation to Indonesia. I know they are not going to get to the bottom of that assassination. They got the gunman, but so what? That's a huge—I don't want to say wake-up cry. It's a scary thing right in your face that somebody could pull that off. Daw Suu's father was assassinated also before he could take over.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot of work to do.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: A lot of work to do, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Maureen Aung-Thwin, thank you so much for your comments today. It was great speaking with you.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Thank you very much, Devin. It was my pleasure.

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JUL 24, 2013 Article

Burma's Reforms and Regional Cooperation in East Asia

"Though the 2010 elections that brought a civilian government to power were not free and fair, the new president, Thein Sein, has embarked upon a path-breaking ...

CREDIT: Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council

JUN 5, 2013 Article

Mindsets May Hinder Progress in Myanmar

Great excitement surrounds the World Economic Forum meeting in Myanmar this week, an indication of the country's new openness. But while the media has highlighted ...

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