Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘New Political Parties Are Not Enemies’

By The Irrawaddy 22 April 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Happy New Year and Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Since the 1990 multi-party general election, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been the most popular party in our country. It also won in a landslide victory in the 2015 election, and was able to form the government—the Parliament is also dominated by NLD lawmakers. At this time, we’ll discuss whether a political party that is as influential and as supported as the NLD is necessary for our country. U Ko Ko Gyi, one of the prominent leaders of the 88-Generation students—a group who has just taken steps to set up a political party—and political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Ko Gyi, the NLD has been the most popular political party in our country for around 30 years, and you yourself have supported it. I have learned that you have started gathering support in order to form a [new] political party.  Why it is necessary to do this, and what role will it play in serving the interests of the people and in state building?

Ko Ko Gyi: In our view, politics is about providing public service. We have constantly engaged in politics since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising for two reasons: firstly to fight against injustices, and secondly, to deliver good services to the people when we have the authority to do so. We were united, and cooperated to fight injustices and to scrap the old system. We ourselves have continuously supported the democratic forces [in our country] to achieve the success we have witnessed today. This is our political stance.

As to our view on democracy, democracy is about enabling people to make choices. Until the latest one, elections have been about people choosing who they like and who they don’t like. Voting was more like a silent protest against those persons whom they didn’t like. It is fair to say that people were very dutiful, so that the persons and the old system that they don’t like has been brought down, and the persons whom they support have come to power. The next stage is about making choices. In this stage, people don’t vote for a particular party just to show their dislike for another party. There will be several political parties, and people will choose their favorite one. We believe that there is a need to move toward this stage in our democratization process.

KZM: In our country, there were around 200 political parties before the military regime announced a general election in 1990. Over 90 political parties contested the 1990 election. And 93 political parties contested the 2015 election. In the USA, mainly it is the Democrats and the Republicans who are most influential. And in the United Kingdom, the Labor Party and the Conservative Party are most influential. There are also Asian countries that have a lot of political parties like ours. Do you think the fact that we have high number of political parties is beneficial for our country, considering the political landscape?

Yan Myo Thein: In my opinion, political parties are pillars of the system of democracy. Only when political parties are strong, will democracy become strong. It is natural that there are a lot of political parties in countries like ours that is undergoing a transition from dictatorship to democracy. For example, there are around 150 political parties in the Philippines. What is important is that people choose those who can really work for the citizens and the country and elect them to the Parliament. To me, the number of political parties is not a matter [of concern]. What is more important is that those parties are led by those who can really work for the country and citizens, and that the political roadmaps and policies of those parties are as good as they sound.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi, students including you led the 1988 pro-democracy protests, and sacrificed life and blood. The NLD came to existence only after the military regime staged a coup. It was students who took the lead and took to the streets in the fight for democracy and justice. And they were imprisoned for years for this. If you are to form a political party with those student leaders who have led the democracy struggle since 1988, how will it be different from the ruling NLD party?

KKG: Generally speaking, we have not reached the goal of the democratic cause, which was one of the slogans in 1988 pro-democracy movement. We have to keep moving toward that goal. Taking a look at the registered political parties, they generally talk about ensuring multi-party democracy, market economy, and ethnic equality. But so far, we are still in the stage of showing support for one party in our protest against the old guard. If we are to go to the next stage, talking of those general policies is not just enough; we need to talk clearly and in detail about what we will do to achieve those things.

Again, an election is an important barometer in a democracy. But in countries that have undergone a transition from dictatorship to democracy, if the electoral system can’t be implemented properly, it is hard to cure the country’s old wounds. We have to ensure those who represent respective regions and respective ethnic groups can join the electoral system, and it is critically important that political parties form alliances for this to happen. We feel the need to look beyond the ordinary conception of an election as a contest between political parties. Our first thought was about adopting a good policy to develop a political alliance to ensure those representing respective regions, ethnic groups and parties could join the elections. This is the fundamental idea for our new political party.

KZM: My next question is, why is it just now that you have thought about establishing a political party? The majority of the people had high hopes in the 88-Generation leaders like you and Ko Min Ko Naing when you were released from prison in 2012. People heartily welcomed you, wondering if the 88-Generation student leaders would form a party and engage in politics. But you didn’t. Some 88-Generation student leaders joined the NLD and even contested the election, and became lawmakers. Why did you just now decide to establish a political party?

KKG: It is not that we were just urged and encouraged to form a political party only after we were released from prison. In fact, we were asked to do so some 30 years ago. But for various reasons, including our arrests and imprisonment, we couldn’t. We were constantly concerned that people would get confused and the vote would be split if we set up a separate political party. So, we called for support for the NLD. Keeping in mind that our main cause was to scrap the old system in the first stage, we discharged our political duties as much as we could and supported [the NLD’s] election campaign in 2015 and public campaigns for constitutional amendments, even though we were not a political party. We also engaged and held talks with ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups as much as we were able to.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi said that running a political party is about providing services for the public. So, Ko Yan Myo Thein, how do you assess the service delivered by NLD government?

YMT: The most noticeable thing is the NLD’s policy regarding political alliances, which is very weak. It seems that the NLD is giving the cold shoulder to most ethnic parties which stood together with them during troubled times. As Ko Ko Gyi has said, people have voted [for the NLD] in the 2015 election for a change; they have pinned all their hopes [on the NLD]. People understand the situation well, but one year after NLD assumed office, I think most of the people think that the performance of the government over the past year has not satisfied their needs and hopes. That’s why the voter turnout significantly declined in the [April 1] by-election, especially in [the Bamar majority] divisions. In my view, it is critically important that a political party can systematically build itself on its policy. There will be new political parties, and no matter how many new parties emerge, the ruling party and parties that have representatives in the Parliament should welcome them warmly, as long as those new parties are committed to the democratic transition. They should welcome them heartily. They can view them as opponents, but it is important that they do not view them as enemies, and this will be closely related to the policies of alliance within the ruling party.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi, your party may emerge soon, and become a major party because there is considerable support for 88-Generation student leaders. How would you like to define your party—the opposition party, or the ‘third force,’ as it is called?

KKG: When it comes to politics, a general interpretation misses the point. For example, the public understanding of an opposition party is that it will oppose the government. In fact, we want to create an alternative choice. When we run a political party, we run it with our own beliefs and policies. So, we will support and cooperate with anyone—government or whatever—if it has the same policy as us. A political party may not win the election and may not have a representative in the Parliament, but it can monitor [the situation] and make constructive criticism about the actions of the current government and the current Parliament. This is different from the public understanding of an opposition party. We want our new political party to be a party that creates a chance for people to choose. We will clearly tell the people what we will and what we won’t do, and we would like to present an option for the people.

KZM: Anyway, the army still retains considerable influence over the politics in our country because of the Constitution. So, the civil-military relationship still plays an important role. Ko Ko Gyi, what is your general policy on handling this, if your party becomes a major player?

KKG: We can only tell the official policy of our party after we have decided and declared it. But my personal opinion is that we will be able to resolve the [issues of] civil-military relations only when we can address the root cause of the military’s involvement in politics. The military staged a coup in 1962 and got involved in politics on the pretext that the Union was on the verge of break-up because of armed conflicts and civil war. So, if we are to ensure that the military goes back to the barracks, and that the civil administration is real, I think the civil-military relationship is related to issues of ethnic armed conflicts, ethnic equality and a federal Union. I think there is a need to approach the civil-military relationship in parallel with Constitutional amendments and the establishment of a federal Union.

KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, there are over 90 political parties, but as Ko Ko Gyi has said, people have chosen the party they like the most and the party that they like the least. In 1990, there was a political party called the Democratic Party for a New Society, formed by students. So, how far do you think the political party of 88-Generation students like Ko Ko Gyi will be able to go?

YMT: In my view, the current political landscape of the country does demand a political party that consists of 88-Generation students, and political dissidents who fought against successive dictatorships, and [includes] other political activists. This is related to low voter turnout in the by-election. If such a political party does not emerge until 2020, the voter turnout may further decline in the 2020 election. So, as Ko Ko Gyi has said, we have to give the people the chance to be able to make choices. And I think the proposed party should be at least the second [choice]. I don’t accept ‘third forces’ or third parties. Because the proposed party is led by those who believe in democracy and who we support. So I think it should be the second party after NLD. It should pay serious heed to its relations with ethnic parties, and should have close ties with them. Again, speaking of the civil-military relationship, it is important that political parties be systematic and strong. Only when political parties are strongly institutionalized and can lead the people, would this help solve the problem of civil-military relations that our country is facing.

KZM: Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said in her address on the one-year anniversary of the government that her administration did its best and that she was willing to step down if there any person could outperform them. So, Ko Ko Gyi, have you learned anything from the NLD and its government? What do you think are the ‘dos and don’ts’ for your party?

KKG: I would like to talk about what we would do. As we will provide services, it is important that we are capable of [doing this]. So, we need the right people in the right places. We need those who have expertise in their related fields. We need to look beyond a political party of comrades. We have to prepare to persuade experts and scholars to join us, as well as to create chances for those in younger generations.

Speaking of policies of alliance, in old democracies like the US and UK, people vote for a particular party not because they don’t like the other party, but because they think they can rely on that party for that term. I expect to see this in our country, for example, if the NLD and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) contest in an election, I want that people to choose the NLD not because they don’t like the USDP, but because they think the NLD is better than the USDP. We have a long way to go in order to become a mature democracy, and the existing parties should reform themselves and try as much as they can to win public support. The quality of democracy will improve through such competition. So, I think the election management in the transition period should not be just about winning the election. Our would-be party should have a broader outlook, rather than only caring about an electoral victory.

KZM: So, people can expect a political party led by 88-Generation student leaders in the 2020 election?

KKG: We would like to invite the people to point out our shortcomings factually. Don’t be considerate toward us: we would like to urge the people to point out our shortcomings in person, or by letter, or by e-mail, or on Facebook. However, what they point out should be reasonable and factual. We would like to invite everyone to [do this], and we expect that people will do so.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Yan Myo Thein, thanks a lot.