Burma is a country which is very well known for its controversial political situation and high profile political figures. Although he has evaded this high-profile status, Aung Gyi is a man with very valuable insight into Burmese politics, given his involvement with it for over fifty years.
Admittedly, he is now retired from politics, not surprising given that he is turning ninety-three this year. He has never been shy to comment on Burmese politics and economic policies – something I discovered when speaking to him in his suburban Yangon home.
“I was very involved in the Burmese independence movement and fought against the Japanese in the 1940s,” Aung Gyi says. “This was really when my political career began. I had some involvement in Ne Win’s government between 1958-1960, but was imprisoned in 1965 for four years after speaking against the economic policies of the time.
“I was kept in solitary confinement for this time and lost my voice because I was not able to speak to anyone. Since then, I have been in prison five more times for political reasons and, on one more occasion for not paying a bill for eggs. At least that is what the government said was the reason,” he laughs.
Thankfully, Aung Gyi tells me, Burma is showing signs of changing for the better. The two of us will not be arrested for critically discussing the current situation in Burma. At least he hopes we won’t, he jokes.
“The reforms we have seen must be looked at in light of the government’s actions in the past,” he says.
“I definitely see them as a step forward. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi are now openly displayed on Yangon’s streets which is an extremely significant sign in itself.”
But Aung Gyi still has his doubts about these reforms.
“Just because they are a step forward does not mean that I think the reform process is complete,” he admits. “It is good to see these small changes, but I am still unsure as to whether these reforms were initiated simply to gain international legitimacy or if they are actually genuine.
“No one knows what the current government will do next. There is still a lot more that needs to be done, and there are still many problems that confront Burma.”
Although I knew that Burma was undergoing an apparent reform process before I travelled there, I was still incredibly surprised to hear such an open critique of the government from a man who has all too often been imprisoned for doing such things.
Aung Gyi tells me that although some of the reforms addressed human rights issues, such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, there are still many human rights abuses being carried out in Burma.
“There are still many political prisoners inside Burmese jails and the situation in Kachin [a state in Northern Burma] is particularly bad. The Burmese Army have been found to be torturing and raping civilians in their fight against the Kachin Independence Army. These humanitarian issues need to be solved in order for Burma to be a successful country, and it is up to the government to address this,” he says.
Burma’s economic situation also greatly concerns Aung Gyi. It is a very backward country, and one of the poorest in Asia, which Aung Gyi attributes to the nationalisation of the economy throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and to the endemic corruption apparent in the government.
Knowing that Aung Gyi has a background in economics, I softly push him to offer advice on how the current economic peril of Burma can be resolved.
“An economic policy which supports small business must be pursued,” he confidently tells me. “Right now, there is not really a middle class here and it is only the elite upper class that are being catered for.
“By helping to develop small business, the lower class and very weak middle class will grow, which will then strengthen the national economy. If small businesses and the agricultural sector are supported, I do believe that Burma will slowly develop over the next fifteen years into an advanced economy in Asia.”
This then brought me to the question of whether Burma will become a democracy. With the country very much in a potential period of transition, this is the question many Burmese, as well as many throughout the world, are now seriously considering. It seemed like an appropriate time to ask him this and he was very comfortable in answering.
“I do hope that in the next five to ten years, Burma will become a true democracy. I think this is very likely, particularly if the National League for Democracy (NLD) gains power. However, as I said before, no one can be sure of what will happen next.
“I do not think Aung San Suu Kyi will be the one to lead the NLD into power. She is more of a democratic figurehead for the people. I think that the new generation in the NLD will be the ones who finally bring genuine democracy to Burma.”
Hopefully, for the sake of the Burmese people, Aung Gyi’s predictions are correct.