Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Suu Kyi Is Having to Make a lot of Compromises’

By The Irrawaddy 16 January 2016

Aung Zaw: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the challenges that await Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy [NLD] government. Irrawaddy news crew members Ko Thalung Zaung Htet and Ko Htet Naing Zaw will join me for the discussion.

We’re all anticipating a peaceful transfer of power, which will be the first in Burma’s modern history. According to the procedure, the new Parliament will convene in February and power will be transferred in March. If this really happens, it is something to take pride in as a country that refers to itself as ‘Shwe Myanmar’ [Golden Myanmar]. But before any of this happens, there’s a question: Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi become president? She said both before and after the election that she would be “above the president,” and she’s repeatedly commented on her desire to assume the country’s highest office. But Article 59[f] of the Constitution bars her from the presidency. So let’s discuss whether she’ll be able to become president.

Thalun Zaung Htet: Article 59[f] is still in force. But Thura U Aung Ko of the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can assume the presidency if that clause is suspended. Article 59[f], which lays out an eligibility criterion for the presidency, states that the spouse or children of the president shall not owe allegiance to a foreign power. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has two sons who are British citizens, which serves as a barrier to her bid for the presidency. If the article is suspended, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can become president.

But some legal experts argue that it can’t be suspended. Parliament’s speakers have said that bills proposed by the government and lawmakers for debate will be postponed until the next Parliament convenes. So given the circumstances, it’s impossible to suspend Article 59[f], and it’s unlikely that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can become the president through the Parliament. However, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have been in frequent communication with each other, so there might be another means by which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can take up the office of president.

AZ: The 2008 Constitution has drawn criticism because it was drafted against the will of the people by a military regime that calls itself the Tatmadaw. To some people both in the government and in the military, this paves the way for changing the Constitution.  It’s beyond a doubt that the people want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as their president. It doesn’t matter if she actually becomes president, because people across the country already regard her as the country’s leader, a sentiment they overwhelming showed in the November election. She’s essentially the leader of this country. Former Snr-Gen Than Shwe has also reportedly endorsed her as Burma’s future president. What’s your view on this, Ko Htet Naing Zaw?

Htet Naing Zaw: I’m afraid this power transfer won’t be as smooth as the media says. According to NLD sources, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is having to make a lot of compromises with President U Thein Sein and Military Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. For example, she’s been asked to keep the government’s lead peace negotiator, Minister U Aung Min, and appoint certain members of the USDP to her cabinet. And some compromises that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been quiet about have pushed her into a corner. She’s said she will form a government of national reconciliation. Still, some NLD members don’t fully understand this situation and have even asked for minister positions.

AZ: I heard the NLD will release the list of nominees for its cabinet at the end of the month.

TZH: It’s already out. They made a provisional list at the central executive committee meeting a couple of days ago.

AZ: I’d like to pick up what Ko Htet Naing Zaw said. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has had to go her entire political life making compromises—she’s 70 now. Even though she’s been given a mandate by the people, she has to negotiate. This reflects the complicated political problems of our country.

Let’s talk about what would happen if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were to become president and assume executive power for the first time. Previously, she was the opposition, and she was described in both local and international media as the democratic opposition leader. But in March the media will start to talk about ‘the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi government.’ Let’s discuss what challenges there will be. Ko Thalun, I think peace is the most important issue for Burma.

TZH: The Union Peace Conference [the start of a political dialogue involving the government, ethnic armed groups and other national stakeholders] kicked off in Naypyidaw on Jan. 12. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only vaguely talked about peace in her speech, stressing that all ethnicities, including both NCA [national ceasefire agreement] signatories and non-signatories, will have to work together to achieve peace. It’s the first time she’s attended peace talks since she said that she would lead the peace process. One could say that this is her first step toward building peace. But there are lots of challenges waiting for her in this process. There is distrust between the military and ethnic groups and also between government and the military.

AZ: Again, some ethnic groups don’t trust Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

TZH: Even though there is distrust, she shouldn’t hold a peace conference or a ceasefire signing. She should rebuild this trust. Only after that will she be able to proceed with the peace process. U Thein Sein’s government has constantly engaged in the process, but it’s failed to achieve the desired results because it could not rebuild trust. The [government-backed] Myanmar Peace Center has supposedly held hundreds of peace talks. But they didn’t do what they needed to do—build trust. So even if a truce is signed, peace won’t prevail. There are still clashes happening around the country.

AZ: NCA signatories as well as non-signatories will be waiting to see what long-term and short-term policies on the peace process an NLD-led government will come up with. Donor organizations, most of them from Western countries, as well as from China and other neighboring countries in the region, will also be waiting. The question is whether the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi really understand the issue, the cause of this civil war and the ensuing conflict.

HNZ: We can be more optimistic about the peace process if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government don’t walk down the path paved by President U Thein Sein but instead go down another.

AZ: What do you mean?

HNZ: For starters, holding individual talks with each ethnic group to build trust and then holding collective talks. The key demand of ethnic groups is equality. The peace process will work better if the NLD approaches each group with goodwill. Again, the NLD needs to convince the military of the merits of national reconciliation. If it caters to the military, it will only undermine trust between the NLD and ethnic groups.

AZ: It needs to be careful that it doesn’t get stuck between the two. If ethnic groups think that the NLD has links with the military, they won’t trust Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a huge hurdle. I’d like to draw attention to ethnic people in hilly regions, especially in northern Burma. Looking back, most ethnic people in northern Burma have never been under military rule. They’ve never been under anyone’s control. That’s why those who attempt to take control of those areas are facing so many difficulties now. It would be very difficult for Burma to achieve peace, no matter who is leading the country, unless he or she understands the complicated conflicts occurring there.

People have high expectations for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, and hope that they will be able to create jobs for people and improve economic, social, health and educational standards. They think, ‘We’ve voted for them, now what will they do for us in return?’ The government is supposed to serve the interests of the people, isn’t it? It must serve the public. A leader elected by the people is the servant of the people. What will the NLD do for the people?

TZH: They’ve adopted a six-point economic policy, and there are 10 points in the details. However, the points are very broad. The NLD will come to power in March. But they’ve yet to specify economic policies for Burma’s development. They always say, read our election declaration. I’ve read it and still can’t find anything satisfactory.

AZ: It’s a huge challenge. In spite of its rich resources, Burma is still considered a third world country, and indeed it’s one of the poorest countries on the planet. But there’s great potential. Businessmen at home and abroad are waiting to see what policies the NLD will adopt to overcome Burma’s current economic challenges, how it will make use of the country’s potential.  My final question: Ko Htet Naing Zaw, what opportunities can the NLD create for social, economic and educational progress for the country? And what will be the challenges?

HNZ:  Young people hope that there will be more job opportunities once Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government comes to power. But as Ko Thalun Zaung Htet said, their manifesto is very vague, and it hasn’t outlined any details on how to create jobs. However, there will be more job opportunities if foreign investments come into Burma. The international community expects Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to successfully assume power, and there is a direct relationship between foreign investment and job opportunities. So it’s fair to conclude that job prospects will be greater once the NLD comes to power.

AZ: That’s very general. It’s not that foreign investment will increase just because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has come to power. Foreign investment will come only when policies are good. Isn’t the most important question how the government will handle this? Challenges lie ahead for the NLD in 2016.