Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week marks the end of 2017 and we’ll take a look back at the political problems that surfaced this year. It is fair to say that 2017 has been a problematic year for Myanmar. We’ll discuss to what extent the country will be able to move forward in 2018 amid those problems. Peace and ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe and journalist Ko Thiha Thway, who has covered the overall political landscape as well as press freedom, join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
As I’ve said, it is undeniable that 2017 has been quite a problematic and tough year for Myanmar. Speaking briefly of those problems, the second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference was held at the beginning of the year. The National League for Democracy (NLD) said that 2017 would be the year of peace. But clashes continue. On Jan. 29, legal advisor to the NLD U Ko Ni was assassinated. It is believed that this was carried out by hardliners as a warning to those wishing to change the  Constitution. Then, many journalists were arrested. And the biggest problem was the Rakhine issue, which has had a profound impact on the country. There was a lot of criticism and blame from the international community and a fresh sanction was imposed on a [Myanmar Army] general. And there were a lot of ethnic issues as well. Ko Maung Maung Soe, what is your assessment of this year?
Maung Maung Soe: The main political objective of this year was to achieve peace. The second session of the Panglong Conference was held with NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] signatories, and actions to hold the third session are underway. But then, prior to the second session, national-level dialogues could not be held in Shan and Rakhine states. Now, with the government planning to hold the third session, national-level dialogues are still not allowed in Rakhine State. Though they were allowed in Shan State, there have been impediments and disturbances.
Again, though the second session reached consensus on 37 points, there were disputes about the way decisions were made there. And besides the unsuccessful talks with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) of NCA non-signatories, there has emerged a new bloc, the seven-member Northern Alliance. An agreement with the four-member UNFC has not yet been reached to sign the NCA. Meanwhile, the FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee of the Northern Alliance] is not recognized by the government and the army, and still can’t meet for talks. That’s why we have heard heavy gunfire toward the end of this year.
Though this year is said to be the year of peace, the peace process has stalled. Under such circumstances, the ‘Bengali’ [referring to the Rohingya] issue arose in northern Rakhine State, which led to displacement of people, casualties and damage to property. The worst part of it is that Myanmar faces a crisis on the international stage, especially on the UN front. As for the economy, though it was said that Myanmar’s economy would shoot up like a jet plane this year, everyone now accepts that the economy didn’t pick up as well as expected. Economically, there are problems like high food prices, high inflation and a high exchange rate. Though this year was touted as the year of peace, considering the country’s current situation, it is fair to say that 2017 was a year of bad luck.
KZM: Things are not developing in favor of the country. Ko Thiha, as Ko Maung Maung Soe has pointed out, there are problems regarding the military, economy, peace and press freedom. How do you assess those problems? What do you think is the main cause of them?
Thiha Thway: It is the consequence of the political force that used to be the main political opposition was elected and came to power unexpectedly, in the context of the administrative mechanism set up by the military and its associated political parties who were the original power holders. There are resultant frictions and disunity when different forces have to work together. They are not able to cooperate strategically, their cooperation limits to only where it is possible, and they blame each other. Those problems in question are the result of these circumstances.
The worst problem is—both Rakhine and peace problems have existed long before, and while those problems have not yet been solved, an unexpected problem has popped up. We had expected that we would receive considerable support from the international societies, especially the western countries, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government took power, but then it turned out to be considerable pressure instead. It was unexpected.
Concerning the media, they have provided great support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party throughout their struggle. The media did play an important part. But then, the media started to face the old things again when the new government took power. The forces that used to stand behind the NLD government now have to confront it for its treatment of the media. This is quite shockingly an unexpected turning point of 2017.
We have to see if it is the problem of the NLD government or the military or both. In my opinion, both have problems. They have different interests, objectives, and values that they think they must protect. Rather than striking a balance between those values, they are defending their values and objectives. They are supposed to play together on the same team, but instead they are grabbing the ball against each other and making sloppy passes. So the play fails as a result, and rather than scoring against the other side, they stumble on each other, fall and slide into chaos.
KZM: We The Irrawaddy are publishing around 50 of the biggest stories of 2017, ranging from the H1N1 virus to a boat tragedy to armed clashes. But speaking of political issues, the main cause of the problems is that there is no unity. And I wonder if there are residual hardliners on the different sides. Talking of the peace process or media or economic policies, I wonder if the government is lacking in capacity to achieve results in those areas. Gen Aung San worked for unity as well as peace and prosperity. What changes do you think should be made?
MMS: Mainly, the 2008 Constitution needs to be changed. There are two separate forces because of the 2008 Constitution. The elected government has its mandate and Parliament can make decisions with a majority of votes. But on the other hand, the 25 percent of military personnel [guaranteed in Parliament] have their own authority according to Article 436 of the Constitution. The government has its own mandate and the military also has authority over certain things.
Though they are talking about national reconciliation, they have failed to translate it into reality. Both sides have weak points. For example, the government is weak in leading and negotiating the peace process. Though the NLD takes the lead role in the peace process, NLD members can’t play well in the main role. Though the peace commission is led by Dr. Tin Myo Win, the role played by NLD members in the negotiation process in very limited.
Again, the NLD said that it would build a federal Union, but it has now been in office for nearly two years, and yet it has not clearly articulated its definition of federalism. What’s more, it has not coordinated with ethnic parties, which are the major parties in ethnic areas over the past years. This is a weak point of NLD.
And speaking of the NLD-led government, it barely includes young and middle-aged party members. And it is recruiting former military officials and former civilian bureaucrats to its cabinet. And most of them are 60 to 70 years old. So, the government is slow. The government doesn’t include young and middle-aged persons who have worked for the NLD continuously. Though they are talking about removing the 25 percent of military personnel from Parliament, there are more than 50 percent in government. This is the reality.
KZM: You mean members of the previous government?
MMS: Yes. There may be at least 50 percent [of ministers and officials of the previous governments] appointed by the NLD to its cabinet though there are only three ministries held by the army according to the Constitution. So, including those appointed by the NLD itself, its government has around 50 percent [of former ministers and officials].
KZM: Yes, this is a weak point of the NLD government. So, you mean the cabinet structure drawn up by the NLD with the intention of facilitating national reconciliation is not well balanced, and the proportion of [former ministers] is higher?
MMS: Yes. Speaking of the army, it sticks to the NCA policy in the peace process. But it has been two years since the signing of the NCA, and there are no new signatories. The government alone is not to blame for this, but it is also because of the policy held by the army. And the army has not bothered to review its policy so far.
The government doesn’t agree with labelling four ethnic armed groups as insurgents but the army does and refers to them as insurgents in its statements. And many clashes happen in the name of regional stability operations every year, and the government can’t do anything to stop them. This problem will continue unless and until there is ceasefire. The army shelled the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] on Christmas Eve. But the government sent Christmas wishes. So, there is no harmony.
KZM: They are acting on their own.
MMS: Yes. Township-level political dialogues were held in Shan State. However, there is an argument that holding township-level dialogues was not formally agreed upon at the UPDJC [Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee] meeting. But then, if the army wants to stop those gatherings, those townships are under the administrative control of the civilian administration. So, if those gatherings are to be stopped, they should be stopped by the civilian administration using police or the General Administration Department (GAD).
Even from the point of view of the Constitution, those areas are not places where a state of emergency has been declared and a military administration is installed. So, the GAD and police should stop this, which is only the reasonable way. But it was instead stopped by the army, which is not only annoying but also incites negative feelings among the people, and is also not good for the military’s image. Unless this situation can be changed, 2018 will continue to be tough.
KZM: It will be quite difficult to change. And it will take quite a long time to change the Constitution. There are people who don’t want to change it. And it is one of the main responsibilities of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] to safeguard the Constitution. It has officially declared it. So, it will take awhile. What can the NLD government and lawmakers do within the limitations of the Constitution? This is the question. If changes can only happen after the Constitution is changed, I’m afraid we have a long way to go. Ko Thiha, to what extent do you think the NLD will be able push for changes within the limitations of the Constitution? I think there are a lot of opportunities for the NLD to push for changes.
TT: In my opinion, there are two parts. The space provided by the 2008 Constitution is wide. There are a lot of things that can be done within that space. And it is true that the central and regional governments and NLD lawmakers can’t take full advantage of that space. The government should focus to take full advantage of it and try to bring about current development. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategy is to link constitutional reform with the Panglong Conference and move forward to federalism through Panglong. And she is also pulling the army along with every step she takes. But I’ve noticed that the army has resisted in some cases.
I’m not saying that her strategy is not good, but in my view, we need a new Constitution that is acceptable to all in order to establish democratic federalism in the long-term. While this long-term process is being done, at the same time I’d like to urge the military and government to coordinate to make preliminary changes to the Constitution for the short-term. I’ve noticed that in either the peace process or the Rakhine issue, once a problem arises in Myanmar, other problems follow and the Tatmadaw is labelled as the culprit. Anyway, the government has to take the overall responsibility and is also faced with repercussions, as is the country. And the consequence is a loss of trust.
It undermines the trust of the international community in our country, trust among ourselves and the trust of ethnicities [in the government]. So, to put it simply, the government has no influence over the military. In my opinion, it is difficult for all [stakeholders] to gather together and reach consensus as unexpected problems usually pop up at the negotiation table. So, I think the Tatmadaw and the government should negotiate to reach an agreement over how far they can go together, and change [the Constitution] to a possible extent. If this can be done, both people and armed ethnic groups will have certain level of trust in the Tatmadaw and the government. Their trust in them has declined as the time goes by because there is no constitutional change despite their promise.
KZM: How good is the relationship between the Tatmadaw and the government in reality?
TT: Both sides have to establish it.
KZM: Journalists have asked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the relationship between the Tatmadaw and the government. And she said that it is normal. We don’t know by normal if she means good or bad. But, the relationship was once poor. We can’t say it is normal. How do you assess it? It will be difficult for the two to build good relationships to the extent that they agree to change the Constitution.
TT: If the Tatmadaw and the NLD get on well with each other and if the space provided by the Constitution is expanded, things will be easier.
KZM: Yes. Since the NLD declared its seven-point manifesto, it has said that it would work for concomitant constitutional change through the Panglong and peace process—first at the state level, and then Union level, and constitutional change [in Parliament] and then the 2020 election. And the ultimate aim is to build a federal Union. But, I think there is a very long way to go. Ko Maung Maung Soe, what do you think of the relations between the Tatmadaw and the government?
MMS: There are things that can be done for the time being while it is still impossible to amend the Constitution. [The NLD government] can handle ethnic issues. It can consult with political parties and people, and enact by-laws in Parliament for ethnic rights. As general administration departments [overseen by the Home Affairs Ministry] have full authority in districts and townships now, Parliament can enact by-laws to give the mandate to lawmakers.
For example, the budget of a state government only accounts for 0.7 percent of the Union budget. So the total budget is just 11 percent altogether for 14 regions and states. [The Union government] can increase their budgets. But then, if the army doesn’t agree, there will be problems. But there is one place where negotiations can be made—the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) enshrined in the Constitution.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has called for summoning an NDSC meeting. And I also heard that the army has done the same. Can’t [the NLD government] view this as an opportunity for negotiating [with the army] once a week without making any decision by vote? Won’t it reduce the problems? They [the NLD government] have taken it for granted that the military will win if a decision is put to a vote at the NDSC meeting [as six posts are held by the military in an 11-member committee]. But, if they view it as a venue for negotiation and not a place where decisions will be made by vote, then both the NLD and the army can negotiate political, economic and peace problems there.
KZM: But I’m afraid there are unseen barriers for the government to do so.
TT: As far as I’m concerned, the concept of the army is a problem. The provisions provided in the Constitution are another part of the problem. But setting aside those provisions and taking a look at the connection between the army and the Constitution, I found that the army safeguards it as a direct inheritance. The army views itself as the force protecting independence, and at the same time it has concerns that independence may be lost at anytime because of civilian political forces. This is the army’s problem. That’s why it overstepped its boundary and stopped political dialogues in Shan State against the procedures. It has the mindset that it is the protector of independence and the Union and responsible for preventing its break up.
This is a problem of different values the two sides are upholding in politics. If their values do not match, or if they don’t try to strike a balance, there will be no harmony between the government and the army. In my opinion, the government and the army should find a common ground and think about preliminary actions to tackle the constitutional challenge. If they can find a common ground, and change the Constitution to a workable extent, then both of them will win the trust of ethnicities and the people. This is the step that I want them to take. They must show how much they are willing to take the initial steps to work together. The perception that the two don’t see eye to eye and that the two are divided brings pressure from outside stakeholders. It raises doubts, accusations and counter-accusations.
KZM: This is exactly the way outsiders perceive it. National reconciliation is said to be most important thing in rebuilding a country, but in our case, reconciliation efforts go nowhere. The NLD government has been in office for two years, and taking a look at the media in 2017, a total of 11 local journalists were arrested. Not all of them were arrested because of complaints of the NLD government. Some of them were arrested by the army and the Home Affairs Ministry, though all of those cases have had a negative impact on the reputation of the government. There are cases brought by the government, for example, Yangon region chief minister U Phyo Min Thein. As far as I’m concerned, some NLD leaders or lawmakers may not accept or like that press freedom is an important estate in a democracy. What do you think, Ko Thiha?
TT: Especially, authorities. By authorities, I mean the military leaders as well as politicians who now have risen to power. Those who have come to power might have forgotten to value democratic values. And some of them don’t understand such values. This is the main point. It is important for authorities to have the democratic attitude that this particular estate must be strong whether they like it or not. They can’t just ignore it just because it criticizes them. They should not neglect the role of media organizations just because they are critical, but they need to have democratic point of view, attitude and values. This is critically important. In our country, both the government and the majority of people at present do not attach appropriate importance to democracy. And the leadership should attach greater importance.
KZM: Media is mainly about monitoring. If the leaders and lawmakers have fairness and transparency, they have nothing to be afraid of. Only when they have things to hide, should they be afraid of it. And I’m afraid some don’t understand it. 2017, according to Ko Maung Maung Soe, was a year of bad luck, and I’d say it was riddled with problems. We’ll wait and see what will happen in 2018. Thank you both for your contributions.