Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Peace Can’t Be Built by Ethnic Armed Groups and the NLD Alone’

9 January 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Happy New Year, and welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss what Burma’s political and economic landscape, particularly in regards to the country’s internal peace process, might look like in 2016. We’ll also talk about whether the muddling of politics and religion, which has tarnished Burma’s image over the past five years, will continue into the new year. Ma Kyaw Hsu Mon, Ko Htet Naing Zaw, Ko Lawi Weng and Ko Thalun Zaung Htet, members of The Irrawaddy’s news crew, will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Thalun Zaung Htet, people are anticipating the swearing-in of a new government this year. Politically, there will be a lot of interesting things to see. However, questions remain. For one, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency, and people are wondering if she will somehow be able to assume Burma’s highest office. What is your assessment?

Thalun Zaung Htet: The media have widely discussed if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can become president, and who will be if she can’t. But no one in the National League for Democracy or in the Parliament has been tipped as to an answer to this question. NLD sources say that they’re hopeful that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will become president, and there’s been communication between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. At present, people have high hopes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will become president.

KZM: Though the constitution bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from being president, she may yet take the position, depending, in particular, on how her talks with military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing play out. But whether she becomes president or not, she’s bound to take the mantle in the country’s affairs. A lot of challenges await the next government.

TZH: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, according to her speeches, is not forming a purely NLD government, but rather an inclusive, coalition-style one.

KZM: That’s what she’s said. But I don’t think she can appoint dozens of former government members to her cabinet. She will only be able to appoint a few, just a small percentage, to her cabinet because the people have given her the mandate to form the next government.

TZH: This is something to think about. If she is too keen to form a coalition government, the people who voted for her will become frustrated. Her government indeed has a lot of challenges to face in 2016. Though the leadership will change, the real question is if the government’s administrative mechanisms will operate in the way that people expect.

KZM: People are concerned about these challenges, about how many political landmines U Thein Sein’s government will leave behind. These will be major hurdles for her.

Ma Kyaw Hsu Mon, the economy is the second most important issue in our country. For ages Burmese people have been in poverty. How will the economic landscape look in 2016?

Kyaw Hsu Mon: The new government must confront both the good and bad legacy of the former government. For instance, it will have to handle unfinished special economic zones. Detailed data on these projects will have to be given by the former government so that the new one will know how best to grapple with any challenges. Cronyism was very blatant under the former government. Ending this will be a huge challenge for the new government.

KZM: In its party manifesto, the NLD clearly said that it will establish a corruption-free government. But corruption is entrenched even in the lowest levels of government. How problematic will this be for the incoming government, given that the military owns cronies as well as businesses?

KHM: Yes, there are businesses owned by the military. Corruption has been entrenched in our society for ages, meaning that it will be a particularly tough one for the new government to break. The outgoing government created a committee to fight bribery, but it didn’t have much success. If corruption can’t be brought under control, it will only make it more difficult to tackle bigger problems.

KZM: Burma is a Southeast Asian country with great potential. But because it doesn’t have clear economic policies and a stable economic environment, foreign investments haven’t really come into the country. How fast do you think the new government will be able to address this?

KSM: This is the question that every businessman has been asking, because they want advantageous trading policies and they’re hopeful that they’ll see this under the new government. The government must create a favorable environment for businessmen, and businessmen, for their part, must support the government’s initiatives, such as the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the Asean Economic Community (AEC), the latter of which has just come into operation. The new government will need to adopt good policies to handle such a huge task.

KZM: Ko Lawi Weng, over the past five years, U Thein Sein’s government has tried to bring about internal peace and an end to fighting, but there has only been little progress, and a ceasefire has not been properly enforced. Do you see greater prospects for this in the future, or will things be more of the same? What will be the deciding factors?

Lawi Weng: I’ve talked to ethnic leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). They’ve formed a committee to hold dialogue with an NLD-led government. They also said that they’re on the same side as the NLD regarding their views on federalism and other ethnic issues. They hope that they’ll get along with the NLD, and they’ve said that they’re ready and eager to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, should they be invited to do so.

KZM: It’s important to note here that peace can’t be built by ethnic armed groups and the NLD alone. When it comes to peace, the military will arguably play the most important role.

LW: Indeed, the military will play a crucial role. And the NLD is concerned that its image may be marred if the army were to launch attacks at lower levels while the NLD is holding talks with UNFC. If the army does nothing, and doesn’t launch any attacks during talks, then talks between the NLD and UNFC might be able to succeed.

KZM: Speaking of the ceasefire process and ethnic issues waiting for the new government, talks between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing will likely play an important role as well. How smooth these talks are will be a deciding factor. What do you think should be the NLD’s first move regarding the peace process and ceasefire after it comes to power on March 31, 2016?

LW: The media are talking about the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and the possibility of a reshuffling there. However, the MPC takes the same line as the [current] government, and it’s not a neutral institution. Ethnic groups therefore have little trust in the MPC, and honestly, they don’t like it much. What should the NLD do when it assumes power? The MPC shouldn’t be abolished, but I do think that the MPC should be reformed to include both current impartial members and new members who have considerable knowledge of ethnic issues, especially leaders of ethnic armed groups, and will cooperate with the new government in the peace process.

KZM: Finally, and most importantly, it can be said that misplaced nationalism has surged after U Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011. And as a result, the country has seen lots of religious conflict that has led to heavy casualties and forced many people from their homes. Similarly, some political parties have attempted to win votes prior to the November election by abusing religion. If this continues in 2016, it will only further tarnish Burma’s image.

Htet Naing Zaw: Looking back at 2015, there were some monks, such as U Wirathu and U Par Mauk Ka, who abused religion to wield political influence. But there were also virtuous, noble monks, such as U Thu Mingala and Dr. Nanda Marlar Bhivums. Indeed, these monks who preached objectively can be juxtaposed against U Wirathu, who labeled Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur to Burma, a ‘whore,’ and against U Par Mauk Kha, who said regarding the Koh Tao murder verdict that he would disrobe and fight if need be. Even still, no monk committee or government has taken actions against them. It’s probable that the government didn’t do anything because it wanted to use U Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha to win votes.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government must make establishing rule of law a priority in 2016, and they must approach Muslim and Rakhine religious leaders equally. If rule of law and co-existence can be obtained, many problems could, at least in part, be solved.

KZM: What other policies do you think the NLD should adopt? What do scholars think?

HNZ: If mutual trust and respect can be built gradually between two sides [despite religious and other differences], and if rule of law can be established, the problem of religious conflict could finally be resolved. It’s important to note, however, that those who don’t like the NLD and pessimists may try to exploit this problem to incite racial and religious instability.

KZM: How moderate leaders are will also play a key role. Di Dote U Ba Cho, who was assassinated along with General Aung San [in 1947], asked him to designate Buddhism as the State’s religion. And General Aung San told him not to say that again, for the sake of peace in Burma, a multi-ethnic and multi-faith country. If we can find such a leader once again, nationalists will find that they have no place in this country.

Though 2016 will hold many challenges for Burma and its people, we can also hope that it will be a time of exciting economic and political progress for the country.