Dateline Irrawaddy: Lurking Pitfalls for NLD Politicians

By The Irrawaddy 1 July 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. On June 24-25, the National League for Democracy (NLD) held its central executive committee (CEC) meeting. NLD CEC member and lawmaker in the Upper House, U Aung Kyi Nyunt, said the NLD is facing three major dangers.

He said party members at different levels are facing the danger of being misguided, the NLD is facing the danger of being exploited, and another danger is that NLD party members are acting arrogantly.

So, this week, we’ll discuss how serious this problem is, and what we can point out. Director Ko Thwin Lin Aung of civil society organization Genuine People’s Servants and journalist Ko Thiha of NHK [Japanese acronym for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation] join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

What U Aung Kyi Nyunt said at the NLD CEC meeting on June 24-25 made the headlines in the newspapers. Let’s define what he said: by “misguided,” does he mean NLD party members at different levels are being bought and put into the pockets of businessmen and cronies? By exploitation, does he mean other parties or political organizations are using [the NLD] for their own benefits? In terms of arrogance, we journalists as well as some other people have borne witness to it. So, Ko Thiha, how would you define those three?

Thiha: Being misguided is a problem facing various institutions. We can even find it in government mechanisms. Cronies especially, and those with strong financial backgrounds who have monopolized government projects in successive periods, are able to approach and persuade NLD leaders.  Yes, this is a danger.

But the danger for the time being is that government institutions are hampering the [NLD-initiated] reforms by obliquely inducing [ministers appointed by the NLD] to accept their bureaucratic mechanisms, which they are good at, and have been engaged in for many years.

At first, when the NLD came to power, there were signs that the government [bureaucratic] mechanism would change. But gradually, those signs disappeared and things have gone back to their previous state. In other words, I’m suspicious that heads of government departments who have engaged in a deep-seated bureaucratic system for ages are misguided [NLD] leaders. This is how I understand the word “misguided.”

KZM: Ko Thwin Lin Aung, what is your assessment of those dangers?

Thwin Lin Aung: I’m quite happy that U Aung Kyi Nyunt has pointed these out, because they are the existing dangers. There is a Burmese saying that when something is too big, it is difficult to see it.

The danger is too big—too big that they don’t see it. We really wanted to point that out. But sometimes, it is difficult for us to do so because of the level of success the NLD has achieved and its reputation as the people’s party.

Under such circumstances, I’m quite happy that a CEC member of the party has pointed those out. On the other hand, the market economy we’re practicing is capitalism. So, [the government] has to engage with capitalists. We can’t hope for their fall like communists do.

When people in positions of political power engage with them, the risk of being bought is quite large. I’m glad that U Aung Kyi Nyunt has pointed this out. Again, the transition is not yet over, and there are certain groups that do not want the transition to take place.

There is also the danger of them taking advantage by criticizing the NLD. While there must be opposition, which is a norm in a democracy, the NLD should be careful to make sure that such opposition doesn’t overstep the boundaries of check and balance. Another factor is success. The NLD achieved great success in the 2015 [election]. There may be [NLD party members] who are too proud of that success and unconsciously display arrogance. Yes, there are. We are seeing them, so I’m grateful to U Aung Kyi Nyunt that he has explicitly warned about it.

KZM: As far as I’m concerned, U Aung Kyi Nyunt is the only CEC member since last year who has boldly pointed out or—in other words—criticized his own party. We’re seeing NLD party members acting haughtily every day, and people are highly tolerant of it—perhaps because it is their favorite party, and they have chosen it themselves. Ko Thiha, as a journalist you have interviewed NLD party members. Do you ever feel put out when you talk to senior or mid-level leaders of the NLD?

Thiha: The first problem we faced was that when the NLD started to form its government, people speculated about the president and chief minister positions. And there were problems when we engaged with those who were tipped as future ministers or the like, as they were pressured at the time. Some people didn’t get the high positions they had expected. Some felt pressures because of the responsibility of their positions. And some were, you know, putting on airs. Some are under pressure as they are afraid that they would accidentally say or make mistakes in their high positions. Sometimes, as they practise restraint to avoid mistakes, it looks like they, especially party leaders, are haughty. And some act like ‘I don’t care whatever you say.’ To put it bluntly, those people could not resist the sense of achievement. Again, it is also partly because they have not been honed properly for it. As they got something big all of a sudden, they don’t feel at ease, and perhaps they had not prepared to be able to adapt to the new environment. Again, perhaps they don’t have the idea of mending themselves even after they are confronted by criticism. Most of them are sensitive to criticism. And people have tolerated their faults all because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As much as the people have shown tolerance, those who criticize [the NLD] have drawn criticism themselves. So, those who are too proud of themselves have got out of control. This is what is happening.

KZM: There are ministers under the U Thein Sein government who were infamous for what they said. For example, minister U Ohn Myint said he had gone around the country and slapped people. But no incumbent minister is that bad under the new government. But as U Aung Kyi Nyunt has said, they acted with an ‘I don’t care’ attitude in dealing with media. For instance, U Win Htein was known for calling a reporter an idiot six times in an interview, and this attitude has created hostility between him and the media. He could have chosen not to say it, but as he said it, it caused problems. What is your assessment? Are they unprofessional as a politician or haughty as U Aung Kyi Nyunt has said?

Thiha: Talking of U Win Htein, he is mentioned quite frequently in the media. NLD party members avoid the media for fear that they would say something mistaken. But, U Win Htein talks to all media. It is his good point. As every media outlet approaches him, and as he sometimes makes remarks recklessly, it was covered repeatedly in the media. This has happened time and again, but he still doesn’t exercise restraint. Recently, he said again that he doesn’t care what people say about of them. It is very bad. We don’t think he said it on behalf of the party. But he said it at the party CEC meeting and this has raised question, and grabbed the headlines.

Yes, talking of slapping is far worse. If there were no leaders like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Uncle U Tin Oo and U Win Tin in the NLD, such words would surely attract severe criticism. This is the difference between the previous government and current government. Under the previous government, people didn’t like what the ministers said as well as the ruling party they represented, so they responded angrily. And under the new government, people are frustrated that they act like that despite there being leaders like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. And it seems that the media also bears them acting like that. This is not a good development.

KZM: Ko Thwin Lin Aung, their standpoints might be right. But the problem is they are politicians and political leaders, and, as they are elected by the people and represent the people, they are the public figures, I think. To what extent would their actions impact the NLD?

TLA: I think there is an impact. What U Aung Kyi Nyunt has said has made headlines in every journal, and so it is like a white spot coming out of the dark black. This is how I see it.

KZM: His words are welcomed by many, as he spoke the truth.

TLA: What he pointed out is happening in reality, but no one mentioned it before him. So, as he was the first person to point it out, it has attracted particular attention from the people.

KZM: After the NLD-led government assumed office, some criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as not being friendly toward the media. In fact, in any country, persons in top positions like the president or the State Counselor need not meet the media frequently. Ko Thiha, do you think they are not friendly to the media? Some say that people view Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a mother rather than a leader. As you know, many call her mother Su. So, she is not friendly, but she is motherly. She treats us as if she were a mother.

Thiha: My view is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had a lot of pressures after she has become the State Counselor. She is very busy. Perhaps she has a lot to think about because of her responsibilities. So, she is not ready to meet the media. She can’t give doorstep interviews to the media while she is on the go like she did in the past. Previously she used to give doorstep interviews on the go. But now, she avoids it, and perhaps she exercises caution in response to the criticism of media. But I think she does this just for work purposes. Personally, she has not changed. If we ask her ‘how are you aunty?’ she would smile and say ‘I’m good, how about you, son?’ So there is no problem with her personal relations. However, compared to the past, I think she exercises greater caution in speaking to the media.

KZM: Ko Thwin Lin Aung, you mean if party members at different levels, senior levels, mid-levels, and perhaps the lower level, have such problems engaging with people, media, or the society at large, it will have an impact on the party. The next election will be held in 2020. If such things can not be controlled, it will have an impact. All the way, the NLD has been the most popular party in 1990, 2012, and 2015 elections. But after it came to power, people are feeling frustrated. And groups like the 88 Generation students are also planning to establish a political party. To what extent do you think these factors will result in a political shift? Maybe it is not a serious problem. But what if party leaders could not control the things pointed out by U Aung Kyi Nyunt?

TLA: I think it will have a considerable impact. Besides those things pointed out by U Aung Kyi Nyunt, there is a problem with the NLD’s party policy. Parties have to take action according to their policies. And their policies should reflect the voices of the people. Sometimes the NLD is weak in that aspect, and I think they are overconfident because of the big success they have achieved. When their policy doesn’t meet the needs of the people, rather than trying to adjust it, they are acting stubbornly, like ‘our policy is not wrong, we are the people’s party.’ Such an attitude is quite problematic. This would lead to a big change of results in the 2020 election. As for the other people [trying to establish political parties], they are trying with goodwill. I think those who are concerned that people would be frustrated with the NLD and switch to [the USDP], which is unacceptable because of its history, are trying to fill the gap. They are doing so not because they view the NLD as an opponent, I believe.

KZM: U Aung Kyi Nyunt has pointed those things out as a visionary and dutiful party member. There are many people like him in the NLD. But very few in the party like Uncle U Tin Oo, the NLD patron, and U Win Tin talk and listen respectfully when dealing with people and the media. I think there is a need for NLD, as a leading party, to have and nurture such people. Thank you for your contributions!