After Difficult Year For Myanmar, Some Cause For Hope in 2019

By The Irrawaddy 29 December 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! We are now bidding farewell to 2018 and welcoming 2019. We will discuss the lessons we can learn from 2018 and our expectations for 2019. U Win Myo Thu, director of EcoDev Myanmar, and Ma Thida (Sanchaung), who is on the board of directors of Pen International, join me to discuss this.. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, The Irrawaddy’s English editor.

Thank you both for joining me. Now is the time we review 2018. In 2017 our country was hit by a political tsunami — the Rakhine issue. We experienced a lot of aftershocks, repercussions in 2018. The country underwent political instability and was seriously criticized by the international community. It suffered a serious economic downturn, and there was no international investment. There were mountains of problems. U Win Myo Thu, what big lessons can we learn from 2018? What are the good things and the bad things?

Win Myo Thu: The Rakhine issue has impacted the country politically, economically and socially. So how to respond to the international community is important. And there is a need for the entire country to clearly understand and acknowledge human rights.  We must avoid defining human rights loosely. If we want to get on well with the international community, we should make a careful review of the issue and make our position public. Only then will we be able to avoid becoming a pariah nation and get on well with the international community. This is the most important thing. Another is about the weakness of the current government. In my opinion the main weakness of the current government is that it fails to strengthen democratic governance, which is the key task of a democratically elected government. Though there are restrictions imposed by the 2008 Constitution, if the government had formed grass-roots organizations such as media, civil society groups, farmers and so on to promote democratic governance, it would have been able to handle the Rakhine issue better. Due to the lack of those organizations, the democratic government could not establish democracy and the country’s politics have reached a standstill. The 2018 by-election is a good indicator of this and came as an alarm bell for the current government.

KZM: Ma Thida, what is your personal assessment of the year 2018?

Thida: The good thing is that a presidential pardon was granted on Myanmar New Year this year to annul all the suspended penalties against political prisoners. That is very good. And we think the president’s responses to two cases are very encouraging. We view them as a very strong message (from the president). He intervened in the Aung Yell Htwe case because (law officers) took bribes. In the case of the journalists sued by the Yangon Region chief minister, he intervened by instructing him how to settle it. We view that as a sign that he is objective in his judgment of issues and that he only cares for justice and fairness. Regarding the Rakhine issue in 2018, I think what Facebook could dig up is quite important in cooling the Rakhine issue. In the past, we could only make wild guesses about who was deliberately spreading propaganda in a systematic way. We could only make guesses based on our decades of experience. But now Facebook has proven it (the military’s use of Facebook to spread hate speech). Now it is clear because they could be identified. This has contributed to cooling the Rakhine issue. I am very sad that (the government) failed to make big strides in bringing about social harmony in the country. It is a cause for concern.

KZM: Taking a look at the driving forces of the country, the Tatmadaw (military) is an essential part of the society. And the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the Tatmadaw, is an even bigger force. We have Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government elected by the people. There are ethnic parties, armed organizations and civil society organizations. But the most important part is the people. There are clashes due to those driving forces. Some call our government a hybrid government of the Tatmadaw and the elected government. I sometimes call it a forced marriage, a couple forcibly married by 2008 Constitution. What is your assessment of the entire mechanism? It is quite confusing, so how can we clear it up?

WMT: Of course we don’t want to go back to 2008 because we are already in 2018. But if you ask me if it is good now, my answer is no. But then we don’t want to go back to the days of 2008. So we need to think about how to clear up the existing mess. The country’s leader is working for peace mainly through the channel of the (21st Century) Panglong conference. There are ups and downs in the peace process. That is its nature, and it is important to negotiate an outcome despite this. The statements issued last week are somewhat encouraging.

KZM: The unilateral ceasefire declared by the Tatmadaw.

WMT: Yes. Some are suspicious that it is a trick. And the transfer of the General Administration Department from the Home Affairs Ministry to the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government is also an important step for democratic governance.

KZM: These are two good pieces of news at the end of the year 2018.

WMT: Yes they are, as 2018 ends. So hopes are being revived. It is like watching a film — it makes you laugh and cry from time to time. Though the summit held on Oct. 15 failed to reach any agreement, I like some statements. The army chief said he accepted a democratic army in principle. I like that statement very much. So we need to see what the Tatmadaw’s understanding of a democratic army is. If we find an answer to how to build a democratic army, there will be political changes. I myself am a participant in the peace talks, focusing on the topic of land and the environment. But those issues are connected with politics and economics. We have problems defining words such as “Naing-ngan-daw” (which can be loosely translated as nation), “Naing-ngan-thar (citizen) and Tine-yin-thar (ethnic minorities). Finding answers to those issues depends on the peace talks. (Leaders) spoke out as the drama escalated. There will be answers if we can follow up on their words. But it is risky for the National League for Democracy government to focus solely on the peace talks, and I think it should think about alternatives or a Plan B. The Panglong may or may not bring about peace. So it should adopt a parallel track to achieve the political gains it wants.

KZM: Ma Thida, as I have said, the country’s politics is quite complicated. People are quite confused. Many are criticizing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government even though they elected it. Perhaps it is because they had high expectations of it. What is its exit strategy? The 2008 (Constitution) was the exit strategy for the military government. What can be done to break the existing deadlock between the democratic forces, the Tatmadaw and the previous establishments? Some have called for thinking out of the box as opposed to thinking inside the box, which is conventional thinking. And now there is a new concept of thinking boxless. Ma Thida, what approaches will break the deadlock?

Thida: In fact, identity politics is the legacy of the colonial period. We were lost for many years, not just a generation. We still have the mindset and practices of the monarchial period. So the general assumption is that if the prime leader or the monarch is good, all will be good. That mindset remains. Again, there is the problem of identity politics, the bad legacy of the colonial period. This leads to excessive focus on preserving our own identity and repulsing the others. So there is a broad-based deprivation of human rights. The problem with (Myanmar people) is that they tend to add so many adjectives to human beings. I want there to be a national-level policy to recognize all humans as equal, removing all those adjectives. I want (the government) to focus on social harmony. The ongoing peace process is quite confusing. Looking (at the peace process) from the perspective of conflict resolution, you can see that there is no moderator. Negotiators, who have their own interests, are playing the roles of both moderator and negotiator. So it is like a single person is acting at once as both referee and actor in the peace process. I have always viewed this as a weak point. So I would suggest that the peace process be reviewed and that those without self-interests play the role of moderator. If (stakeholders) assume the peace process can be completed within a few years, why are there doubts about the (military’s) four-month ceasefire declaration? This is the reason.

KZM: They will continue fighting after that.

Thida: Many stakeholders have suffered from conflict and trauma for over 50 years. So it is impossible that a stakeholder group can resolve all those conflicts in a couple of years. So I want there to be a law. I want to see a law with two parts, one for peace and another for national reconciliation. One part is to ensure transitional justice. It is quite unrealistic to think that (the two sides should) shake hands while one side has not yet healed the wounds it has inflicted on the other. Another part is to detail various issues after that. Identity politics may still persist, but it won’t have much impact then. All the discussions should be based on state building, how we want to see Myanmar society in the future. The NPC (National Peace Center) was founded under the previous government, and the NRPC (National Reconciliation and Peace Center) was founded under the current government. So I want the process to be implemented according to the law because I don’t want to see another center formed under the new government after 2020. And certain people at different levels should be allowed to make decisions depending on the magnitude of the issues. But at present all the concerned authorities are involved in the decision-making no matter how minor the issue is, which causes confusion. So it is very difficult to negotiate.

KZM: Ko Win Myo Thu, you said some are suspicious of the four-month unilateral ceasefire declaration issued by the Tatmadaw on Dec. 21. Earlier, the commander-in-chief of the defense services said the peace process would be completed by 2020 and that peace would be handed over to the people. Why did he say that at the end of 2018? There is a year’s time in 2019 and then there will be the general election in 2020. How can we interpret the resolution of the commander-in chief of defense services and the Tatmadaw?

WMT: They want to achieve something by 2020. Only they know what attitude they have. We can only guess from the outside. First of all, we need to consider whether they have political objectives. If so, they may try to achieve peace — it may or may not be the kind desired by all — in one way or another to pave the way for the political situation they require (to achieve their political objectives).

KZM: Could it be a desirable outcome?

WMT: Maybe, maybe not. It could be both good and bad. But in my opinion the main issue is there are two ideological groups in the peace negotiation. The first group says the current Constitution can facilitate federalism while the other group says it cannot. In my opinion, however, it is clearly stated in the NCA (Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement} that federalism will be implemented. It is certain and indisputable. However, when federalism is defined, there is a group that says the current Constitution cannot facilitate federalism and is unlikely to create genuine federalism. In my opinion, the current Constitution facilitates a unitary state. It is not compatible with federalism. If the Tatmadaw is pushing other stakeholders to implement federalism in accordance with it, the outcome will be so-called federalism and the outcome in 2020 will not be the one desired by all. They will compromise on what they can do and It will be a pseudo federalism acceptable to them. The question is whether the group demanding genuine federalism can accept it. Even if it is not acceptable, that group might have to accept it because its members are in crisis and are deadlocks and have no other options. The political conundrum will persist in other forms.

KZM: The government has been given a mandate by the people. We can see that the government is doing what it can along the way despite obstacles. How can it break the deadlock?

WMT: I am not sure what you mean by the government? Who you are referring to?

KZM: I am referring to the government elected by the people.

WMT: However, the people taking part in the peace negotiations are not them but departmental personnel. Therefore, they work according to the law within the scope of the 2008 Constitution and never go beyond it. The desired solution cannot be found, as you said, by thinking out of the box. However, we cannot see what attitude the NLD government has on federalism. It recently said what will be amended in the Constitution. I am not sure it is true because the information was posted on Facebook. We need to find out. When I scanned it, I could not see much about the federalism demanded by us, the ethnic [minority] groups. They may be seeking just a workable peace during their term in office. If the current government can’t find a solution during its term, it will damage the political reputation of the government. It can be seen that the government sometimes gives priority to saving its reputation. What is worrisome is that this will lead not to the federalism we have been calling for but to a politically workable one. This is to be questioned.

KZM: Before the 2015 elections the [NLD] pledged that it would amend the 2008 Constitution, and it is now working under the slogan “Together With the People.” Is it now working against that slogan and its campaign promise?

WMT: No, it isn’t. It will amend some provisions that can be compromised on. However, such constitutional amendments might not be the ones we desired. They might not be compatible with democratic federalism. It might say it is being pragmatic. However, most of the public expects much more than that. So if the federalism is not genuine, peace cannot be achieved because there is still so much injustice across the country. This injustice is deeply intertwined with environmental conservation and natural resources. There is environmental injustice. If such injustice is not solved, it would be a bad prescription. As long as there is struggle, including public protest and armed conflict in one way or another, genuine peace cannot be restored.

Thida: I would like to urge the government to start thinking of the formation of the Ministry of Justice in the same way as the General Administration Department, which was recently placed under a new ministry. Law enforcement agencies such as the police should be under the chain of command of the Ministry of Justice. Currently the judiciary has a separate chain of command and the police are under the Ministry of Home Affairs. So the flow of command between them is not convenient. One way to think out of the box is to place law enforcement under the judiciary. The problem can be solved in this way. Alternatively, considering our discussion, it is time for the Tatmadaw to review its role immediately. This is because the international pressure from the likes of the ICC (International Criminal Court), a cause for concern for the Tatmadaw and the entire nation, is specific to the Tatmadaw. It has something to do with the position taken by the Tatmadaw itself. If the Tatmadaw were willing to be part of the elected government, no one would blame it separately. No one would accuse it of anything else. No one would point a finger at it. Because the Tatmadaw itself has chosen a position in which it is not a part of the (elected) government, it has locked itself in a box. If it wants to get out of that box, it just needs to get rid of it. It needs to accept that it is a part of every elected government. Furthermore, members of the Tatmadaw should abandon their right to vote like members of religious orders. If the Tatmadaw is able to choose a position that proves it is neutral and concentrates only on national defense, it will be able to overcome the crises it is encountering. I think the path the Tatmadaw has taken has locked us in crises too. I urge the Tatmadaw to choose the correct path.

KZM: Frankly and pragmatically speaking, I think that is very unlikely. They do not just enjoy suffrage but also take 25 percent of parliamentary seats, according to the Constitution.

Thida: If they want to think out of the box, just get rid of it.

KZM: It is a good idea, if they want to think out of the box.

WMT: In my opinion, there are many things they can be compromised on, but they haven’t put the options on the table. The point is that there is a problem and a solution, but they do not identify it, diagnose it. No solution can be found by way of the current discussion. Now there are people who know the problem and what prescriptions should be given. There are many options — option one, two and three. If options are put on the table, peace can be achieved soon. This is gradually gaining momentum. For example, we discussed the eight-states principle. This is the fundamental to the formation of federal territories. Based on this, power sharing and solutions have been taken into consideration. There are some factors that worry the Tatmadaw. There are factors that worry ethnic (minority) groups. Ways to solve them have been taken into considerations. The problem is that all these (options) have not been put on the table like a buffet.

KZM: As Ko Win Myo Thu just said, the political decisions will be had by the top leaders, maybe only one or two or three. There will be a lot more to discuss about that. Finally, with two pieces of good news in December, how should we approach 2019?

WMT: With the optimism of a human being, I would like to say that it might be better than 2018. If it is not so, we can discuss it next December. First of all, we will have to talk about the daily economic life of the people. In terms of economics, 2018 was a bad year because the U.S. dollar has appreciated and GDP has dropped slightly. However, government infrastructure projects are about to be implemented and this will create employment opportunities. There will be jobs. Japan will import laborers from Myanmar. Whether we like it or not, there are opportunities for Myanmar workers to work in Japan based on the relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Japanese government. These are benefits in terms of economics in 2019.

KZM: Another thing is that the government is inviting investors from East Asia.

WMT: Only China will enter the market, based on its strategic interests. For others, we still have many defects. So I don’t expect too much. However, China is sure to start implementing the Silk Road. We will see advantages as well as disadvantages related to these projects. When these projects are implemented and China pushes Myanmar politically to protect its interests, ethnic armed organizations will have to participate in peace negotiations whether or not they are willing to do so. I don’t know if it will be positive. But China cannot push Myanmar too much. Leverage is limited. When it reaches its limit, there will be repercussions. I hope the economy will be slightly better in the coming year. On the other hand, as it is approaching to 2020, opportunists will find it an opportune time to create chaos.

KZM: It is a good time for saboteurs to make the situation worse.

WMT: These two factors coincide in 2019. In addition, climate change and natural disasters might hamper the process. It is an exogenous factor.

KZM: They can’t be predicted and controlled. Ma Thida, we have been focusing on the internal situation. In the international arena, however, this is a time when we can hardly see any positive signs. If we look at the U.K., there is Brexit. It is getting worse and worse. When we look at the U.S., there are problems between the Trump administration and the media. The trade war between China and the U.S. is very intense. With this backdrop, how can we see Myanmar? Is the situation in Myanmar not as bad as in those places amid such confusion?

Thida: It depends a lot on the decisions of the groups in Myanmar that think they can make decisions by themselves and how they want to be seen, whether as a nation or as a government or as the Tatmadaw or as ethnic groups. I think their choice is important. For social harmony, all of us are present in Myanmar. Only when all our actions, words and thinking are fine will all of Myanmar be fine. I usually say that if one wants to look for the most important and responsible person in Myanmar, one has to look into a mirror. I want everyone to accept this concept. The day we all decide how we would like our country to be seen is the day no one can insult us.

KZM: Ko Win Myo Thu and Ma Thida, thanks a lot. Let us welcome 2019 with this limited good news.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.