Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘When NLD Lawmakers Deal with Ethnic Issues, They Need to Use Their Heart and Their Brain’

By The Irrawaddy 6 February 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! We are at the Upper House building. We’ll discuss how the Parliament has been progressing since its commencement on Monday, the differences between the old and new parliaments and how the new Parliament will handle Burma’s important political and ethnic issues. Ma Htoot May, an Upper House lawmaker from the Arakan National Party [ANP], and Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ko Thalun Zaung Htet will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ma Htoot May, you were elected to the Upper House for the Arakan National Party [ANP]. The Upper House session convenes on Wednesday. First of all, what do you think of the Parliament as a young lawmaker?

Htoot May: I don’t find anything interesting in terms of essence, by which I mean that I have no idea how Parliament made it through those five years. But according to the cause of building “the Union with national people” for which we have come to Parliament, I will try to bring about change while I am serving. We can learn lots of lessons from the past. But for the future, we have to work on the interests of the people. Drawing a comparison between this building [Parliament] and the livelihood of [the general public], it’s clear that power is very centralized. This building is proof that government expenditure is centralized. The [previous government’s] expenditure on education and health was the lowest. There was a huge gap.

KZM: The previous Parliament was dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]. And the military is still guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But this Parliament is dominated by the NLD. The color has changed to dusky orange [from green]. Ma Htoot May, you were elected to represent an ethnic party. Do you see differences or similarities between your party and the NLD?

HM: In a democracy, there is no absolute similarity. There are differences. But our campaign slogan was to establish a federal Union with self-determination through a mandate for state governments. The NLD won election in a landslide and also won in many ethnic regions. It is above suspicion [that NLD secured a thumping victory] because the NLD has struggled for democracy for ages.

But I have my concerns. Lawmakers who won in ethnic regions are from the NLD, and because they are not from ethnic parties, they will more or less have to respect the policies of their party. When NLD lawmakers deal with ethnic issues, they need to use their heart and brain. As they try to respect their party’s policies, they should not forget ethnic aspirations. It would be better if they could work together with us on any law that leads to federalism for the interests of people.

KZM: The NLD has selected the speaker and deputy speaker of the Lower House, and the deputy speaker is an ethnic man. The speaker and deputy speaker of the Upper House nominated by the NLD are ethnic persons. It indicates that the party gives consideration to ethnic groups. What is your impression of U Mann Win Khaing Than and ANP leader U Aye Tha Aung?

Thalun Zaung Htet: Some ethnic voices seem to be satisfied. Yesterday, U T Khun Myat, who is ethnic Kachin, was given the deputy speaker position, though he is from the USDP. U Mann Win Khaing Than, who is ethnic Karen and from the NLD, has been earmarked for speaker of the Upper House and U Aye Tha Aung, from the ANP, for deputy speaker.

KZM: U Aye Tha Aung has considerable experience in politics.

TZH: I heard ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy [SNLD] say that they are satisfied with the NLD giving positions to ethnic lawmakers. But at the same time, ethnic parties are saying that they want to play a greater role in administration- and Union -level positions, as well as greater representation among division and state chief minister positions, which are to be appointed by the NLD. For example, the ANP has demanded that the Arakan State chief minister position be given to the ANP, which won the largest number of seats in the state parliament. At present, ethnic parties have a certain share in the legislature. If they are also given positions in Union-level agencies, the executive branch will become more interesting.

KZM: Ethnic person make up three of the four speaker and deputy speaker positions. But it will be more important for them to get positions in the administration. Ma Htoot May, you have continuously studied the 2008 Constitution and will have to take the oath of office according to that Constitution tomorrow. The Constitution was criticized as being undemocratic. What do you want to say about the provisions in the Constitution regarding federalism and ethnic issues?

HM: Even ordinary people who have read the 2008 Constitution know that it can’t lead Burma to development. The [Parliament] should be democratically elected, not be appointed. How we can convince [the military] that appointment is unacceptable is key to solving this problem.

Regarding the oath, it is about vowing to abide by the existing laws. But it does not mean we won’t change them. It is common across the world for a law to be amended if it is against the interests of the people. So we’ll try to amend or rewrite it. There are laws in Burma that are not compatible with modern times and that are weak, for example, the Constitution that reserves 25 percent of seats for the military, therefore making it undemocratic.

KZM: Changing the Constitution largely depends on the military representatives sitting in Parliament. They are there to make sure the Constitution is not changed. How do you feel about sitting together with them in Parliament? Do you think they are not needed? How do you anticipate negotiating with them?

HM: I have no feelings about their involvement in Parliament. But there is one thing I care about—their role. The duty they have to carry out is gigantic. If they were elected by the people, things would be democratic, and if they entered Parliament to enact legislation, we would welcome them. In every country, the military has to carry out its huge duty of national defense, and the duty of legislatures is to enact legislation. I don’t see them sitting in Parliament for fear that a Constitution or a law might be annulled [in their absence]. They are sitting there because of the 2008 Constitution.

But if they [the military] do want to do something good for the people, they have the chance. For example, if an amendment needs more than 75 percent of affirmative votes to pass, the good, brave military men who are also trying to introduce change to our country can take part. We will be a better democracy if there are more lawmakers who really want us to be this.

KZM: Not only the military representatives sitting in Parliament, but also the military leadership play a key part in this country’s politics. Frankly, for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become president, she will need the approval of the military leadership. Though her party has won the election, she is barred from the presidency by Article 59(f). She can be president only if the military agrees. Ko Thalun, what have you heard about this in Naypyidaw? There have been so many wild guesses.

TZH: We haven’t gotten any on-the-record information from NLD lawmakers. They are not allowed [according to Suu Kyi’s orders] to speak to the media. But I’ve heard from them off the record that they are holding talks with the military for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the president, and it sounds like the NLD will have to give lots of positions in the government, including Union-level positions, to the military in return for a change to the Constitution.

KZM: So the presidency is still very much up in the air. Again, regarding NLD lawmakers, people, especially international scholars, are saying that they do not have experience in administration and running the country.  Ma Htoot May, you are a young, elected lawmaker. How much do you believe you will be able to serve your state and your people? What capacity do you think will be needed?

HM: Indeed, we can’t buy experience. But it has only been five years since Burma started moving toward democracy. Those who served in Parliament for the past five years also did not have experience at the start. Everyone faces difficulties at the beginning. This is true in any part of the world. But at the same time, late-comers have an advantage, in that we can learn the pros and cons of a law or of technology from developed countries. We can learn their experiences.

KZM: To profit from the folly of others?

HM: Yes. I view Naypyidaw as a university. I have things to learn, and we’ll be able to serve the people best by gaining experience. I vow to do the best I can.

KZM: Parliament will be in full swing in the next two, three weeks. Are you prepared to submit any proposals yet?

HM: There are four standing committees in the Union Parliament [e.g., the bill committee, public accounts committee, etc.]. I will submit proposals depending on the actions of these committees. For now, I have not yet prepared a specific proposal. But there is one thing. I’ve come here to amend the Constitution. So I will restudy which provisions go against democratic norms and which should be amended in the next five years. Again, in addition to power-sharing, resource-sharing plays a big part [in development]. Most of the infrastructure, including in Naypyidaw, is built with the [government] budget. I’m interested in the budget for the next five years. I will do my best to manage budgets according to resource-sharing for the people.

KZM: Ma Htoot May, Ko Thalun Zaung Htet, thank you for your contributions. We’ll see what laws Parliament will pass for the interests of the country in the coming weeks. Thanks, all.