Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘ Change Will Not Be as Easy as People Thought’

By The Irrawaddy 12 November 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Last year on November 8, voters went out into the streets and voted overwhelmingly for the NLD [National League for Democracy] because of their hope and trust in the party. But a year later, are their hopes just as fervent or have they changed?

Ma Zin Mar Aung, a lawmaker who represents Yankin Township in the Lower House, and Ko Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society, join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

It has now been one year since the election. On that day, people voted happily and showed off their fingers [marked with ink after voting.] The NLD saw an overwhelming victory, which indicated how hungry people were for change and how much they trusted the party.

Ma Zin Mar Aung, are hopes as high as they were one year ago or have they faded since the [NLD-led] government has been criticized for certain issues? What do you think?

Zin Mar Aung: It is true that people overwhelmingly voted for the NLD with high hopes. As a politician, I think there have been certain changes. But the hopes of the people at that time and my personal hopes may be different. I had already predicted that change would be difficult. It will not be as easy as people thought.

We have heard a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the government and lawmakers this past year. Speaking of change, people no longer have fear like they did in the past. They have become bold enough to openly criticize candidates they voted for as well as the government. This is a big change in terms of psychological freedom and freedom of the people.

As for lawmakers, we are now in closer contact with them compared to the previous Parliament. Because of their hopes, people’s interest in Parliament has increased. Things have changed in this aspect. But we have to admit that the government still has not been able to bring about notable changes in the economy to affect people’s daily lives. Although the election was a year ago, the government has been in power for only six or seven months. In the administrative branch, the ministers were replaced but the rest of the institution remained the same. So, we can’t achieve many of the changes we had hoped for.

KZM: Ko Aung Moe Zaw, as a leader of a party that was established after 1988 and contested the 1990 election, what would you praise or criticize about the six-month-old government?

Aung Moe Zaw: Looking back at the NLD’s election manifesto, it made promises regarding internal peace, constitutional amendments, judicial and administrative reforms, economic performance and more. I would like to focus on its political promises.

Constitutional amendments and peace are related issues. The Lower House Speaker said the Constitution would be amended only after peace was achieved. He also publicly said that the military holding 25 percent of the seats in Parliament was not a problem. We have to question if this is the stance of the ruling party and those in charge of the government.

I am not very happy with the role of the Lower House. It is supporting the government rather than providing checks and balances. This is not a good sign for nascent democracies like us. I want Parliament and CSOs [civil society organizations] to be vibrant in the initial stage of the democratization process. There should be protests, demonstrations and demands everywhere. I say this positively, not negatively. Some of these groups may be practicing self-censorship and I wonder if this is because of government policy. I feel that CSOs have become more silent.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, what do you think of the question of checks and balances pointed out by Ko Aung Moe Zaw?

ZMA: I have a slightly different view from him because I am a lawmaker. Given the overall political setting, it is obvious that a balancing act is necessary. Ko Aung Moe Zaw has expressed concern over the words of the House speaker and the role of Parliament. But I don’t think Parliament is inferior to the government. I see lawmakers devoting themselves to listening to the voices of people, asking questions, submitting proposals and holding the government accountable. In my experience, lawmakers are always trying to check and balance the government by asking questions and submitting proposals to ensure it does its administrative duties. There is no vertical relationship between the government and Parliament even though top leaders might exercise some restraints to prevent political crises. I don’t think the legislative institution is playing an inferior role to the administrative branch.

KZM: Lower House Speaker U Win Myint has told lawmakers not to ask questions that can cause trouble for the government. What do you think about that?

ZMA: I was present on that occasion when he met with NLD party lawmakers. This was not the only thing he said; his speech lasted for more than an hour.  But because only that part was highlighted, it caused a misunderstanding. He asked lawmakers not to ask questions that could mar the dignity of Parliament and cause trouble to the government. He was referring to unrealistic and impractical proposals that are too far from the existing reality of the country. Submitting unrealistic proposals is a waste of time for Parliament. Since the government can’t make promises in response to unrealistic proposals, it mars the dignity of lawmakers. So, he asked lawmakers to exercise restraint.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has taken on the overall responsibility for the country but more specifically she has taken on the duties of the foreign minister and the peace process.

Clashes continue but she has been working for peace with might and a sense of urgency. I rarely find the same sense of urgency at most of the ministries. Why is this? Is this a leadership problem caused by individual ministers or a lack of communication between top leaders like President U Htin Kyaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the ministries?

ZMA: I am not as clear about intra-governmental communication as I am about Parliament. I can only speculate in response to your question. It is fair to say that no ministers work as hard as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been working with great fervor and it would be difficult for ministers to rival her commitment.

The government is paying considerable attention to the economy now. The Ministry of Finance and Planning has stated details about the Union budget on its website. The government might have realized how bad the economy and unemployment were only after it took office.

KZM: To what extent have you seen improvement in the education and economic sectors, respectively? Commodity prices . . . the government needed to clarify economic policies for foreign investors, as they were vague when first introduced. Ko Aung Moe Zaw, what do you think?

AMZ: It concerns me. I am worried that the economy, mainly the livelihoods of citizens, will be neglected while the government focuses all of its efforts on the peace process as the country’s top priority. I don’t have extensive knowledge about economic issues, but my view is that people are experiencing the negative impacts of high commodity prices and high inflation in their daily lives. The Central Bank of Burma has failed to curb inflation. Before the election, people thought Burma would receive an influx of foreign investment if the NLD won the election. But it has been seven months and Burma is not yet receiving foreign investment. I want the new government to put a strong focus on it. Today, the gap between the rich and the poor is quite large and people are facing terrible livelihood problems.

KZM: To be fair, we need to bear in mind that the government assumed power not long ago. The problem is that only about eight ministers were appointed by the NLD. The rest are former government officials and outside scholars.

ZMA: What about the role of the permanent secretaries?

KZM: Yes, I want to talk about that. Whether the new ministers are providing the leadership with a sense of urgency is a question, but if the permanent secretaries and directors-general from the previous government are resisting their new ministers is another question. Progress has been slow and if their resistance causes this, we have to question the leadership of individual ministers. In that case, do you think there will be a government reshuffling?

ZMA: Recently, one of our party leaders talked about reshuffling one or two people in government. I don’t think [top leaders] will stand by and do nothing. I think they are giving it time. For example, they will wait and see for about seven months and. . .

KZM: Do an evaluation?

ZMA: Yes, [their performance] must be evaluated. Similar to how lawmakers listen to the voice of the people, government departments have also opened communication channels to listen to feedback from the people. Top leaders might have set a probationary time limit but they will not wait an unlimited amount of time. I am sure the door is already open for those willing to change, but for those who are unwilling; I think they would and should adopt a carrot and stick policy. I think this even though I do not belong to the administrative branch.

KZM: Thank you for your contribution. We are not yet a democratic country, but are still on the road to federal democracy.