The Irrawaddy

A Calculated Political Shake-Up

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Last week, the top three leaders of the country State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, newly elected President U Win Myint and Army Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing delivered addresses. We will discuss those speeches. The Irrawaddy English editor Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe and Burmese editor Ko Ye Ni join me to for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese chief reporter Kyaw Kha.

We now have a new president and this shift is quite interesting. Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe, what is your view on this change?

Kyaw Zwa Moe: We can assume that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government made such a big change after careful consideration, two years into their term. Before this, there was a lot of frustration with the performance of the NLD government, especially its ministries. The change was made in response to that feedback.

The reason U Win Myint was appointed is strikingly different from that of U Htin Kyaw. As everyone said, U Htin Kyaw was chosen as president because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from the presidency. But, it is different for U Win Myint. She chose him in consideration of the time after her era. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is over 70 years old now. She seems to have chosen someone who can handle her responsibilities when she can no longer work either because of her health or age. U Win Myint must be her favorite candidate. He has shown his caliber in Parliament over the past two years. And he was elected three times [to Parliament]. I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made the move considering the political role of the Tatmadaw and the political privileges given to it by the Constitution.

We are now undergoing a democratic transition. In other words, a democratic transition can be defined as a gradual reduction in the role of the Tatmadaw in politics and the administration. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her government and the new president have made a political move based on this. We can’t lose track of it.

KK: State Counselor Daw Aung San Su Kyi delivered an address on Sunday and I found an interesting point in her speech. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that she is committed to solving the problems facing the country with collective strength. Ko Ye Ni, what does that mean to you?

Ye Ni: There are two big challenges facing the country as well as the NLD government—peace building and the Rakhine issue. She said she would overcome those problems with collective strength. By ‘collective strength,’ she may refer to the public support for her party, which won the election held according to the 2008 Constitution and formed the government. But I think that when she says collective strength, there are key players like the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations and ethnic people. And there are other key players—such as international partners that are helping Myanmar with the Rakhine issue and the peace process. I think she means that all of them should work together toward a common goal.

KK: I also found some interesting points in the speech of the army chief in his address on the 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day. Ko Kyaw Zwa, did anything from his speech stick out to you?

KZM: Overall, he focused on national politics like in his previous speeches. I assess that the Tatmadaw has shown either in the past or at present that it wants to solve problems and build peace together with the current government. But at the same time, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar people and political analysts understand that the Tatmadaw definitely is not yet ready to leave the political circle. It is partly because the Tatmadaw has declared itself a patriotic armed force because it was founded by Gen Aung San.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing still embraces that concept. So, the army has said that it will engage in national politics. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and domestic political forces understand this. But it is difficult for international partners to accept. So, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi quoted President U Win Myint, and talked about three points—rule of law and improvement of the socio-economic life of people; national reconciliation and internal peace; and the amendment of the Constitution to provide a foundation for building a democratic federal republic. So, the government has set the rule of law and socio-economic improvement of people as the top priority. It understands that constitutional reforms, which need the approval of the military leadership, will take time. The Tatmadaw has the same view, I think. The Constitution must be reformed, as it doesn’t meet democratic norms, but this will take time. The Tatmadaw will take its time and continue playing a part in politics.

YN: The 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day is worth noting. Compared to previous anniversaries, the military spent the least amount on this one. Unlike previous anniversaries, it didn’t show off its military equipment, and spent on the ‘Sinbyushin’ military exercise instead. This is a message that the Tatmadaw is reducing its expenditures. Another thing worth noting is that the Tatmadaw seems to have changed its vision though its political stance remains unchanged.

Previously, the army chief talked about protecting race and religion. But in his message on the 73rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day, he talked about the need for hard work to catch up with fellow ASEAN countries. He did not talk about ‘Union spirit’ but called for ‘Myanmar spirit’ without racial or religious discrimination. This vision is worth noting, I think. I feel it is closer to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision of equality. I think it is the outcome of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’ efforts to build trust with the Tatmadaw at the risk of her reputation on the Rakhine issue.

KK: Another interesting thing is that he talked about the ROE [Rules of Engagement]. Everyone knows that there have been human rights violations by the Tatmadaw in some regions and states, and there were calls for taking action against the perpetrators. We don’t know yet what kind of punitive action will be taken. I think it will do a lot that the army’s top leader has said that action would be taken for the breach of the ROE. Do you think it will have an impact?

KZM: It is good that the army chief has said so. But to what extent practical action will be taken is open to question. Frankly speaking, the Tatmadaw has been under fire for human rights violations. It has been constantly criticized by the international community for human rights violations especially regarding the Rakhine conflict, and clashes in Shan and Kachin states. To answer the criticism, it is important that the Tatmadaw take punitive action in a transparent manner on the ground. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she wants to see an army that is reliable, respected and loved by the people, in other words, a professional army. Everybody wants to see such an army. The Tatmadaw has a lot to do to build itself into that kind of army. It has much to do to improve its image internationally.

KK: I think we should welcome the army chief talking about the ROE. Ko Ye Ni, what is your view on this?

YN: Recently, when there are allegations of human rights violations, the Tatmadaw will launch an investigation and take action against perpetrators, for example, in the case of the killing of 10 persons in Rakhine State, as well as killings in Kachin State. This is a good sign. That the army chief has talked about the ROE is the first step for the Tatmadaw to change public perception of it—from an oppressive mechanism to a standard army or professional army, which in essence is a national defense force that protects the country and the people. Whether it will really become a standard army will largely depend on how much it is willing to cooperate in security sector reforms, and reform of the 2008 Constitution.

KK: Last question. It is an interesting turning point for Myanmar to have newly elected President U Win Myint. What changes can we expect that are different from the first two years of the NLD-led government? Despite the presidential change, the government still has to work within the framework of the 2008 Constitution. How much can we expect from the new president?

KZM: I think there was a lot of frustration over the past two years, including over the situation in Rakhine State. The peace process has stalled, and the economy was the worst problem. People from all walks of life—from businessmen to working-class people—have criticized the economic performance of the government. The government has to do something to achieve tangible results. It only has three years until its term ends. In fact, it has only just over two years until the 2020 election period. People don’t want to wait two years.

The first thing it needs to do is to ensure rule of law and socio-economic recovery as the president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have said. The economy is crucially important. The change of president is good. But the question is to what extent he will be able to exert his executive power to manage each of more than 20 ministries to achieve results. How much can he handle alone? Teamwork is important. Some ministers are almost incapable. How promptly can changes be made to address this problem? Is it necessary to change ministers? The president has been switched. The president should see if the ministers can perform the duties he assigns within deadlines. It is very important. I think the commerce and tourism ministries as well as some others need changes. There is a need to assign the right men to those ministries promptly. Only then, will we be able to see significant changes in the next six months or a year.

KK: I have met three presidents in my life. Looking at the strength of their inauguration speeches and their mannerisms during the speech, I feel like the address of President U Win Myint was pithy, precise and strong. And I like the way U Win Myint spoke actively and confidently. He moved the microphone as he spoke vigorously, and that was very interesting. I feel he is more active than his predecessors. What changes can we expect during his term, Ko Ye Ni?

YN: As we’ve said, he was appointed for other reasons than U Htin Kyaw. U Win Myint is younger. U Htin Kyaw’s presidency was largely ceremonial, and U Win Myint seems more like a working president. This is encouraging. As he took office, we had good news about the economy. An IMF report said that Myanmar’s macroeconomy, which declined in the initial years under the NLD government, has started to rebound and is likely to gain momentum in the coming years. This is good news. Usually, when there is a change of leadership, the economy responds in fear of possible political changes, for example, the exchange rate may increase as a result. But in our case, the change did not affect the market much, and it remains rather stable.

An event just ended as we recorded this Dateline Program. The Ayeyarwady Bank organized a home loan expo, which sold apartments in installments. That the bank provides mortgages shows that it is willing to assume risk in the hope of economic stability or even development in the future. As I’ve seen some businesses and projects implemented based on the future economic prospects of the country, we can say that these are good signs. If President U Win Myint can lead a lean and capable cabinet to realize the economic potential of the country, there will be very encouraging news not only for the NLD but also for the socio-economic status of the people.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!