Life

Min Zin: Burmese activist
crosses boundaries

MIN ZIN: (JP/Moch. N. Kurniawan)
MIN ZIN: (JP/Moch. N. Kurniawan)

When applying for his masters degree at the University of California (UC) Berkeley this year, Min Zin, a 35-year-old Burmese dissident, encountered a big problem.

He had never finished high school.

Min Zin was kicked out of high school in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1988 for his political involvement against the military junta.

After this, Min Zin had gone into hiding to avoid arrest until 1997 before fleeing overseas where he worked as a journalist for years, voicing democracy for the Burmese people.

"So when I applied for a masters degree in Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley, I had no high school of undergraduate diplomas, and that caused headaches for the faculty," he said.

However, UC Berkeley showed its grace. Endorsed by five professors at the university, Min Zin was eventually accepted as a graduate student despite some concerns over the issue of favoritism.

"This might not have happen at other universities or in other countries. I was so grateful with UC's decision," Min Zin said in the courtyard of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

The opportunity to study at UC Berkeley means a lot to Min Zin. It means he could gain access to tons of books and other material on his and other Southeast Asia countries, and regularly discuss it with experts on the region.

"I am always interested in Southeast Asian studies, particularly on Indonesia because it has a lot of similarities to Burma," Min said explained.

"As a neighbor, Indonesia is doing a good job managing the transition from an authoritarian rule to democracy. Indonesia is fighting hard against its deep-rooted corruption, and is dealing well with multi-ethnic and religious radicalism issues -- all of which could be studied by my home country."

It is not without good reason Min Zin suggested Indonesia was a good example of an authoritarian-turned-democratic country, since millions of Burmese people have been fed with news that "democracy will only lead to separatism and the collapse of a country, just like in the Balkans".

"Indonesia is really a good case study for us to examine, not the Balkans," he said, admitting that reading books about Indonesia had always thrilled him.

Min Zin's reflections on his country showed that his mind and heart remained their, despite the fact he is now living far away in the U.S..

"If I could return home today, I would go. I belong to Burma. My family is there. I want to dedicate myself to establish good journalism and education, because I realize that education is the key to developing Burma."

Min believes that journalism -- through radio, print and television -- could be a vital tool for the informal dissemination of educational material to the Burmese people, since the formal education system there is very limited.

"Even if there was a political change tomorrow, our formal education wouldn't be available for everyone in the country within 10 or 15 years. People will remain reliant on informal education. That's why the media people are very important," he said.

Min Zin may be far from home, but he is holding on to a message Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent him in early 2003, urging him to continue with his education and emphasizing that it would be a valuable investment for Burma.

The message was not given by chance, as Min Zin has known Suu Kyi since 1988 when he arranged for Burmese student unions to join peaceful democratic protests against the military junta. He witnessed the latter responding brutally with bullets, killing some 10,000 civilians.

Suu Kyi was put under house arrest later in 1989, as the military junta launched raids against democratic activists. Min Zin managed to escape, but his father, who passed away a few years ago, was imprisoned.

Ever since, Min Zin has moved from one place to another in Burma, hiding from the military searches, and after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995, he has communicated with her regularly to exchange ideas.

In December 1996, Min Zin was one of the key organizers of massive student demonstrations, demanding better education and democratic reforms.

Instead of fulfilling the call, the military junta cracked down on the protests, arresting Min Zin's student activist colleagues, however they still could not find him.

As the military continued to hunt for him, Min Zin decided to leave the country, sneaking out to neighboring Thailand by trekking through the jungle for five days, in 1997.

In Thailand, he began his career as a journalist in Radio Free Asia (RFA Burmese Service) and the Irrawaddy English magazine.

Then Min Zin got an opportunity to be a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, in 2001. He went back to the U.S. again in 2004, this time to work full-time at RFA, whose headquarters are located in Washington D.C.. Min once appeared in an MTV documentary celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela that allowed him to talk with the prominent world figure.

Since leaving RFA in late 2007, Min Zin is now working as a freelance journalist, contributing articles to the Thai-based Bangkok Post newspaper, Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and The Irrawaddy online and magazine.

Min still maintains his status as a Carnegie teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, and is currently studying in the University's Southeast Asian studies program.

Those are the long and dynamic journeys Min Zin has made, his best assets to help rebuild Burma.

Min Zin believes that the only way to solve Burma's protracted crisis is that the military open a political dialog with the democratic opposition parties and ethnic groups.

Min says the military-drafted constitution and follow-up elections in 2010 would not bring about the much-needed state-building process, a process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard.

Instead of state-building, the country is now crumbling with repression, poverty and a humanitarian crisis, he said.

Min said the UN-led international community -- especially countries like Indonesia -- should not give up their attempts to enforce an inclusive political resolution in Burma by 2010.

"Of course, I am not optimistic," he said.

"But if the international community lets the generals in Burma continue their unilateral 'road map', the country will experience a crash landing."

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