Exclusive interview with the founder of OMI and his mission of standing up for democracy in Myanmar

Interview with Aye Kyaw, the Executive Director of Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI). OMI, was founded in 2013, and an open non-political NGO conceived as a think tank and research center as well as education and training center promoting the ideals of the Burmese democratic movement.

Background of Aye Kyaw 

Aye Kyaw co-founded an organization called the Burma Youth Liberation Front, which fought for democratic rights in Myanmar. He also opposed the cancellation of results of Myanmar´s general elections in 1990, won by National League for Democracy. Due to his protests he was arrested in 1992 and spent 6 years in prison. After his release, he continued his human rights and democratic activities. He also volunteered in activities of Former Political Prisoners Organization /FPPS/ and was elected a Member of FPPS Working Committee. He is also a member of 88 Generation Students, a group of former student leaders of pro-democracy movement founded in 1988. 


Can you tell us more about your background and how you came to be associated in the founding of OMI in Myanmar? Also can you share with us your role in the Burma Youth Liberation Front and the 88 Generation Students? Are these important movements before setting up OMI?

I grew up during the former dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party. The failure of socialist policy led to near total collapse of Myanmar in every sector – economy, health care, education, and you name it. It destabilized the country and it is the beginning most of the problems we face today in Myanmar. Like many other youth of my generation, I was frustrated with the system and joined the movement for democracy in 1988. Students and youth were in the forefront of the movement and took leadership in the 88 mass uprisings for change towards democracy. In the process of this movement, I become one of the leaders for an organization Burma Youth Liberation Front. Because of my role in this movement, I was sentenced to long-term imprisonment. 

After 2010 general election, Myanmar gradually shifted toward democracy under U Thein Sein government. This opened a new window of opportunity to work for change. From our revolutionary/activist approach, the 88 generations shifted to different political arena. Some joined political parties; others formed NGO or civil society organizations.  Some of my colleagues are now sitting in the Parliament. With the changing political environment, I became interested in political research. Under the leadership of 88 Student Generation leader U Ko Ko Gyi and other student activists, Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI) was established in 2013. OMI was conceived as political research institution, a think-tank organization promoting the right to information and civic education training, and as a parliamentary monitoring group. I am humbly honored to be entrusted with leading OMI as Executive Director, especially U Ko Ko Gyi for having confidence in me.


What lessons have you learnt about democracy? Is the public aware of the sacrifices that you have made when you were with the Burma Youth Liberation Front?

For us who grew up under one party system and military dictatorship, democracy is our hope for the future. We understand that the rule of majority does not necessarily provide fairness or the best solution for our various problems. The sacrifice is not important. But what is important is that respect for the opinion of others and everyone must have the right to expression in the democratic process. In my opinion, it is the responsibility to promote democracy at all time for those who value it and they must continuously fight and protect this right.


Is Myanmar ready for embracing changes and adopting western style democracy?

My answer for this would be “No”.  Today in Myanmar, most people understand the need for change at every level of the society and in every sector. I would say Myanmar is ready for change, to embrace change for democracy but not necessarily western style democracy


OMI was founded three years ago as an open non-political NGO that is seen as a think tank and research organization with a strong purpose of training future leaders and creating openness in society? Has that goal changed? And if so what are its new goals?

Three years ago, OMI sets goals for the future, our vision and mission for the future. Our goals have not changed. We will not deviate from our founding principle as a non-partisan, and independent organization.


What other political or non-political organizations do you work with to spread the goals of OMI?

We welcome any organization that strives for change by non-violent approach and solve issues by political means. OMI partners and our clients are from different organizations including political parties, local and international NGOs, and civil society organizations.


What are some of the work you have done for women’s empowerment, fighting for minority rights, freedom of access to information and the right to know including internet freedom ?

We do not have special program for women and ethnic groups. But we do have consideration for gender and ethnic representation in our educational programs – including in our curriculum designs and civic education training.


Your motto for OMI reads “Pull Down the Wall of Ignorance”. Is that happening or continuing to happen as we speak? 

Pull down the Wall of Ignorance.  OMI has been working towards civic education, providing trainings, workshops and seminars for what matters to the public. We will continue to do so. There is no final end when you educate the people. It is a continuous process. Political environment changed with time and there is always the need to raise public awareness on what is happening.


Has the new government been responsive to the efforts undertaken by OMI and your team? 

OMI is a non-governmental, non-partisan organization. We have worked under the previous military dominated government and we will continue in the future with the incoming governments. We do not expect anything from the government but intend to build good relationship with the new governments.


Has the international media been responsive to OMI? I understand that you have initiated a number of workshops for the media as well as various communities in Myanmar. You continue to engage NGOs, CSOs, human rights groups, journalists, lawyers and selected target groups to spread the message. Would you continue such workshops?

Open Myanmar Initiative has frequent interactions with local and international media. They are important partners for OMI. We have been in the news on international newspapers such as the Globe and Mail Canada, Radio Free Asia, BBC, Voice of America, Channel News Asia, etc. We are open to the media and will continue to work with them. 


What is your idea of an ideal society? Can you give me an Asian example of a country or a system that Myanmar can aspire to become or would after in the future?

An ideal society is where people are aware and recognize their differences and respect for who they are. Diversity in opinion should be our strength and not something dividing us. Personally, I do not see Asian example that will be an ideal for Myanmar. There is no ideal country, in the West or East but each country is unique and requires different solutions. 



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