Bertil Lintner, a Swedish-born journalist and author, has written many articles and several books on Burma over the course of his career. He is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and currently contributes to various news outlets, including The Irrawaddy. In this interview with The Irrawaddy’s founding editor Aung Zaw, Lintner discusses what an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government might mean for Burma and the prospects for peace regarding the country’s engagement with foreign donors and peacemakers.
Welcome to The Irrawaddy, Bertil. Today, we’d like to discuss the incoming government, led by the National League for Democracy [NLD]. The Parliament has been approved, with U Htin Kyaw as the president, and they’ve chosen two vice presidents. For the first time in decades, we’re going to have a civilian government. People have very high expectations. It’s too early to make any judgments or speculations, but generally, people welcome this new political order in Burma. They want this military-led regime—one of the most oppressive, corrupt governments—to go away. In spite of initial problems we’ve heard about in the cabinet—fake diplomas and all that—people still generally welcome these changes. I want to hear your assessment, your opinion on this.
It’s only natural that expectations are very high. This will be the first civilian president in half a century, a government where most of the ministers don’t have a military background. Expectations are high, but I will say they’re unrealistically high. It will be very hard for this new government to live up to people’s expectations because there’s still the 2008 Constitution, which preserves fundamental powers within the military. So we’re going to have a very popular civilian government with very limited powers. And we have to wait a year or two—maybe even less than that—to see what they can actually do, because the Minister of Defense is under the military, [the Minister of] Border Affairs, and most importantly, the Home Ministry [are also under the military], which means the department administration is above all the local governments, really, when it comes to day-to-day affairs, and they also control the police. So what’s left for the elected government is not that much really.
So what you’re saying is that no matter who comes into power, power lies in the army’s hands, the army still calls the shots? According to the 2008 Constitution, all the key ministries are still controlled by the armed forces. And in the Parliament, 25 percent is reserved for the military; they have absolute veto power.
Definitely. If you want to change the Constitution, or even amend it somehow, according to one of the protocols in the Constitution, more than 75 percent of all the MPs have to vote in favor of the suggested change. That’s not even the end of it. After that, according to the Constitution, that proposal to change the Constitution has to go to a national referendum. It’s a very cumbersome process. So in effect, it’s impossible to change the Constitution unless the military decides, “OK, now we’ll go ahead and change it.”
And because of the Constitution, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become President. She’s now taken four minister positions, which will give her a seat on the National Defense Security Council, the most powerful executive council—an 11-member council that decides national security issues. But she’s also taken on another three portfolios as minister. It seems to kind of suggest that she’s a “super minister.” But at the same time, I’ve heard that there weren’t enough qualified people or people had to drop out at the last minute, and she had to take over these portfolios. What is your reading on that?
I’m not quite sure that was the case. Let’s look at the [ministries] chosen: foreign affairs, energy, president’s office and education. These are very important ministries. She will become, really, above the president, as she said. If you look at energy, for instance, that will have to do with relations with China. And China, as you know, is one of the owners of the biggest power stations in the country, which is very controversial. And that, combined with her foreign minister portfolio, gives her a kind of international profile, which is above the president. And then, of course, she is a minister in the President’s Office as well. The question is: Can she really do all of these things at the same time? It’s going to be very difficult, and still, she has to deal with the military, and if the military says no, it’s no, no matter what she [Aung San Suu Kyi] wants to do.
Some are saying that because of the cabinet minister list, the fake diploma, a lot of unknown people—including the vice presidents, one [of whom] was chosen by the military, who’s very corrupt, General Myint Swe, and also very loyal to the former dictator, General Than Shwe; the other one is a totally unknown person, an ethnic Chin—a lot of heavyweights are being left out in the cold. So the honeymoon period may be shorter, because the press is getting aggressive, even the international media are getting aggressive—such as [the story] about Aung San Suu Kyi’s driver becoming President—so I think [there is] a lot of misleading—as well as more aggressive and critical—reporting on the incoming government already. So I think the honeymoon period will be quite short. So what is the to-do list for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government?
Well, I think first we have to dismiss this nonsense that this government is not, you know, competent enough compared to whatever. Let’s face it: Compare this cabinet with its predecessor and its predecessor before that. Were they any more competent? No.
They were absolutely very corrupt people, and they served an oppressive machine.
And the only experience most of them had was military, not running ministries. So I don’t think this government is going to be less competent than the previous one. And also the foreign media jumping on this thing about Aung San Suu Kyi’s driver. Maybe he drives her car, I don’t know, I drive a car, too, but I don’t want to be called a “driver based in Thailand.” I’m a writer. He [Htin Kyaw] is a decent person, he’s a good choice, and I can understand why people are enthusiastic about him.
Do you think that a lot of foreign investment will be coming in because an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government takes power, or that the country will become more aid-driven?
More aid, definitely. A lot of foreign governments have pledged to give more aid. But investment, well, I think that will take time, because no one suggests jumping in and saying, “OK, now Burma’s become democratic, let’s go invest.” I don’t think people think that way, that’s not their mindset. Their mindset is more “wait and see,” let’s see how this government performs.
But you’re talking about a to-do list. Yes, you have the economy—which is in shambles—education—it definitely has to improve—and then the old question of the civil war and peace in the country. So if you’re talking about a to-do list, those three [things] should be at the top of that list.
Talking about peace, we had a very well-known organization established under Thein Sein’s government called the Myanmar Peace Center, MPC, led by outgoing minister U Aung Min and other peacemakers and other foreign peace experts, who came flocking to Burma to try to achieve peace between several ethnic groups. But also the NCA—the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement—signed by President Thein Sein’s government, was a kind of half-baked success. Under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, this process will continue, but it will be very much different. The MPC will become some sort of NGO, and there’s a rumor going around that Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the MPC. What are your expectations?
Well, first of all, you have to look at the MPC: What did they actually achieve? How many years have they been [in Burma], almost four or five years, and all they can show for the record is a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement signed in Naypyidaw in October of last year with eight groups. But look at those eight groups—five of them have no armies, some of them just exist on paper. It’s only three groups, really. The RCSS—the Shan group, the KNU—the Karen—and the DKBA—the other Karen faction. Three groups, which are mostly based on the Thai border, which were forced into signing this agreement under heavy Thai pressure, there’s no doubt about that. All the major groups are left out, like the Wa, the Kachin, the Shan-North and so on. So it’s obvious they need an entirely new approach for this problem, this issue. Exactly what that will be remains to be seen. I haven’t seen any statement from them.
The new government will be the only one to tackle the old issue of the ethnic civil war, which Aung San Suu Kyi herself said after she came out of house arrest in 2010, that the ethnic issue, the civil war, is the most important issue the country has to solve in order to move forward. So one should expect that the new government will try to tackle this problem in a different way. But the problem here is that it’s also become an industry. I don’t know how many foreign peacemakers come in here […] and say they want to make peace. But these people understand nothing about the roots of the ethnic conflict in Burma.
Before we go in-depth about peacebuilding, I want to take it back to trust-building and confidence-building. When an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government comes to power, do you see there being any progress with those heavyweight groups that were left out, because Aung San Suu Kyi is different from the previous government?
I think they’re willing to give the new government a chance. That’s my impression from talking to people from non-Burman ethnic groups, but it’s too early to say. But if you look at this new cabinet, there are not that many non-Burman ministers there. And there are no women, apart from Aung San Suu Kyi […] Burma has a tradition of politically active women that predates Aung San Suu Kyi. Like in the 1950s, Burma had a lot of female MPs, they had female administrators. Women played a very important role in society at that time. [There were less women later] because the military is, by definition, a male-dominated institution, which they [the NLD] have yet to correct. I think an argument that can be used against this new government, which it will have to face, is why it’s not more equal when it comes to ethnicity and gender.
So [how] will the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi get these remaining ethnic groups to come to the table?
The problem is that this approach [signing the ceasefire agreement] has been tried since 1963 when the first peace talks were held in Rangoon, and it’s not working. There’s not a civil war in the country because people like to fight; there’s a civil war because there are many ethnic groups who would like to see a return to an improved version of a federalist system that Burma had before 1962. Unless they start talking about this issue now, they’re not going to be able to move forward. None of these groups is going to agree to be disarmed unless there are serious political concessions made by the government.
I think resource-sharing is also one of the biggest issues. Particularly under the previous regime, there’s been plundering of these resources. Does the NLD comprehend the magnitude of these problems? Do they have enough information to make decisions or to make a more realistic approach to this conflict?
We’ll have to wait and see, but so far I see no signs of that at all. Look at Kachin State. The jade mining business is a multi-billion dollar business, and it could feed the whole country. But where’s the money going? It’s going to China, it’s going to foreign interests, it’s going to a number of local businessmen connected to the generals. Nothing, really, ends up in the hands of or benefits the local population up there. They’re still dirt poor.
And the country remains poor. Bertil, the last issue I want to ask you about is the future of the MPC. There were news reports that donor communities—like the EU—completely fell in love with the MPC in the last Parliament are going to end their funding at the end of March. But this peace-building process will continue. [There is a lot of] embezzlement and corruption and deep scandals that are still unwritten in a lot of international media. These donors, mostly from the West, are the ones who talk about transparency and accountability. But do they have any idea what’s going on?
I don’t think they do. When the Myanmar Peace Center was around, you had the European Union and Norway and Switzerland and Japanese organizations just pouring money into this thing, millions and millions of dollars and euros. It became a big business. And where does all this money go? I haven’t seen any proper counting of it, and it’s time now for these donors to sit down and say, “Wait a minute, let’s see, where did all this money go and how has it been used and how can we avoid something similar in the future?” I can’t prove anything because I haven’t seen the facts or figures, but I think it’s high time the MPC be investigated for corruption.
On what grounds?
To see where the money’s going and how the money’s been used and who’s been doing what.
Thank you so much, Bertil.