88 Generation's U Ko Ko Gyi Shares Vision for New Party, Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 24 November 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week U Ko Ko Gyi — chairman of the People’s Party, recently established by the 88 Generation student leaders, who have taken a leading role since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising — has joined me to discuss his insights into Myanmar’s complicated political landscape. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, The Irrawaddy English editor.

It is fair to say that Myanmar politics have always been as complicated as they could be. After the country regained independence in 1948, civil war broke out and problems arose with ethnic armed groups under the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League government. Because of the civil war, Myanmar came under the military boot. There was the one-party authoritarianism of the Myanmar Socialist Program Party and then a military regime. Now we are in the era of the elected government. But the legacy [of military rule] still lingers as new problems arise. What new ideas and approaches do you have, as a leader of a new party, to resolve the country’s unsolved problems?

Ko Ko Gyi: I have often made this joke when I am asked why I joined politics. Jokingly I reply [that I joined because] I don’t like ease. I mean I could make a comfortable living to myself. But since 1988 I feel I could not just stand by, and I have had dreams about the future of my country, the way I wanted it to be. To pull our country out of the complicated maze you mentioned was one of our dreams. The daily politics of the grassroots people are their livelihood. We have had dreams of improving their living standards to be on par with neighboring countries, or better than theirs if possible. Analyzing the problems, one is the politics that involve the civil war, ethnic equality and federalism, and civil-military relation, because the country was under military rule for a long time and is experiencing a constitutional crisis as attempts are made to address those problems within the framework of the 2008 Constitution. These are the political problems. Also, looking from a different perspective, I’m afraid the political leaders are trapped in the political problems. So we wondered how much attention they have been able to pay to the daily livelihood problems of the people, and what the links are between the political terminologies we argue about and the daily lives of the people. So we think that while we try to end the civil war, which is even older than us, there is also a need to have political impact on the daily lives of ordinary people.

KZM: So it has become ever more important to find approaches?

KKG: Yes it has.

KZM: As you have said, one of the problems is the civil war, and so there are efforts toward peace. The role of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in politics should be noted. And there is also a constitutional crisis. Tatmadaw leaders play a very important role. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has focused on national reconciliation. If you do acquire a degree of power, how would you negotiate with Tatmadaw leaders?

KKG: We have become middle-aged men since we first engaged in politics as students. The Tatmadaw has also had a new generation come to power. The military officers of 1988 have either retired or died. I see that change as an opportunity. I would like to build understanding between the Tatmadaw’s younger generation and our younger generation. I have had informal talks on secession, for example. Nobody wants to secede and nobody wants others to secede. Generally, there is no disagreement on that. But the conceptual foundations are different. One side thinks the other side must give up the right to secede, and the other side thinks that it must cling to it because it is enshrined in the [1947] Panglong Agreement. This is negative argument. So why don’t we take a different approach? For example, in the US Constitution it says “in order to form a more perfect Union.” So if we take our cue from this and say “in order to form a more perfect federal Union,” then there is no need to argue over secession. The establishment of a federal union is a process, and it will not be completed in a certain period of time. So at informal talks I have suggested taking a different approach and thinking about “in order to form a more perfect federal Union”, and some military officials have seriously considered it. So my point is that there will be no answers if we solve old problems with old ideas. Everyone should accept this point. If we can find new approaches and new ideas, especially if there are new approaches and new ideas among the younger generations, I think these problems will be overcome.

KZM: The question is how to offer them new ideas, especially those who have some degree of power. I mean if military leaders will have new insights and understandings about constitutional reform. If not, they will maintain the mindset of protecting the 2008 Constitution and not allowing it to be changed.  If that is the case, how would you make them change their mind?

KKG: In negotiations, each side should try to know each other’s red lines.

KZM: They can’t be crossed?

KKG: It is better to not cross them, but I don’t mean they shouldn’t be crossed at all. Both sides should work to find common ground within the agreed range without crossing the red lines. If disagreements are repeatedly touched on, the distance will expand. So we’ve called for acknowledging the differences and finding common ground to start working on it. Then, we hope, the differences will diminish.

KZM: The 2020 election is years away. Before we talk about the election, let’s think about some possible scenarios. If the People’s Party — I found that it has achieved a certain level of public recognition — were to have some degree of authority, what approaches would it adopt to address these problems that would be different from those of the U Thein Sein government and the current government?

KKG: Speaking of the political problems we mentioned earlier in the conversation, while there are calls for ceasefires and peace, the role of those who are capable of firing and shooting has become more important.

KZM: There are more clashes now.

KKG: If this problem is objectively accepted as a political problem, and not a military problem, there is a need to empower the ethnic political forces. So one of the policies of the People’s Party is to forge an alliance with ethnic political parties. If we can help them secure political representation and political power in their regions, there will be an option. As evidence builds that running a political party can lead to politically favorable results, there will be greater belief that those problems can be solved politically and that there is no need to take up arms. So in working to achieve peace, there is a special need, from a political point of view, to create a role for ethnic political forces. I seriously believe this.

KZM: Many political parties like your policy. The ruling NLD will remain the most powerful party in the 2020 election. The second most powerful will be the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). Your party may be an alternative to those two parties. But being the third party may be a big challenge. What is your party’s strategy to mobilize public support in regions like Yangon and Mandalay?

KKG: We’ve opened a headquarters. Then we’ll have to open branches outside Yangon. We have plans to turn those offices into centers where people can file complaints about their daily problems and seek advices and consultation. If people can discuss their problems frankly and seek advice … we believe we will gain public support over time if we give them practical support rather than urge them to join or vote for the party. And speaking of ethnic regions, ethnic populations are spread differently in different regions.  So these are things that need detailed discussion. Yes, it is true for democratically mature countries that democracy is about standing for election and competing intensely. But in a sensitive and deeply divided country like ours, there is a need for cooperation at every stage — in policy, in elections and in parliament after elections.

KZM: Many believe the NLD is working for a successful democratic transition for the country. Your party of 88 Generation leaders also works for democracy. They can be clearly differentiated from those parties associated with dictators. How would you make the People’s Party stand out among other democratic parties including the NLD to win greater public support? It seems the NLD still has real potential to win the 2020 election.

KKG: As we’ve worked together for many years, we want to hold talks with other parties, including the NLD, that have the same stance and objective as us. And we can hold talks with them about related issues, for example. If we have a shared view on a particular subject, then we can just inform the public as it is. If not, regarding urban challenges, for example, we have to convince the public that our plans are better.

KZM: So my question is, what would you do to win the election?

KKG: It is a cause for concern that voter turnout has declined. Voter turnout declined in the 2017 by-election, and in the 2018 by-election fewer than 50 percent of [eligible] voters cast votes; only 42 percent of voters cast votes. Why didn’t they cast votes? Are they fed up with politics? Do they feel that nothing will improve even if they vote? I think that population is particularly important for us. So I believe the People’s Party can win votes by rekindling their interest in politics and bringing them back to polling stations.

KZM: Now is the age of globalization, so we need to look beyond domestic affairs and into international relations. Myanmar has been criticized and its image has been marred due to the Rakhine issue and human rights issues. As you have studied IR (international relations), what is your vision of Myanmar’s international relations, or what is your party’s foreign policy?

KKG: We have adopted a policy of reciprocal, beneficial and peaceful cooperation with neighboring countries, regional countries and the international community. In fact, the Rakhine issue is a specific issue. There is still argument about whether it is a domestic issue or an international issue. The international community labels it an international issue, and we have to approach it from the perspective of the sovereignty and security of the country. Some [countries] have criticized us out of honest concerns, but some have their own agendas. We don’t want to confront any country. We should try to make our international friends understand the reality. And we need to solve the problem issue by issue. From the point of view of human rights, whether they are citizens or not, they are human beings who should have access to humanitarian assistance and security. About their citizenship, citizenship laws are different from one country to another. The international community should acknowledge this point. Again, after they gain citizenship, there should not be discrimination on grounds of creed and color, gender and social status. So step by step we should try to make the international community understand and know the reality.

KZM: Some political analysts have said that ASEAN countries have to choose between the US and China. What is your choice?

KKG: There are two types of international relations. One is value-based, such as the values of democracy, human rights and liberalism. Each country implements its foreign policy based on what it values. Another is interest-based. There are cases when countries give priority to interests over values when their interests are confronted. So a political leader needs to understand what [the country’s] political interests are. And they need to adjust international norms and values as much as possible to match the interests of their country. So there are only two ways big countries are involved in international politics. One is their interests and the other is the values that they trumpet. It is important that we understand this fact and manage international relations effectively, because we are a small country in terms of size and are neighbors with superpowers. Any government in office has to give priority to maintaining good ties with them; this is the requirement of reality. And it also needs to maintain friendly ties with the international community.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions, Ko Ko Gyi.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.