‘In the Way They Were Trained to Think Everything Is About Security’

By The Irrawaddy 21 March 2015

In this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Kyi Myint of the Myanmar Lawyers Network and 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi join The Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw to continue discussions on the Mar. 5 crackdown on a student protest in downtown Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership role and upcoming elections.

Aung Zaw: We’ll continue discussing the crackdown in front of Yangon City Hall, which we discussed last week. Advocate U Kyi Myint of the Myanmar Lawyers Network and U Ko Ko Gyi from the 88 Generation Students Group will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy Magazine’s editor Aung Zaw.

Is there is a lack of communication in the chain of command, or has the government tried to subdue the protest because they are terribly afraid of the students?

At the same time, there is another question. There were students in Letpadan who would march to Yangon. Was the crackdown carried out to stop them from joining with students in Yangon? So, there are many questions [surrounding the protests]. Can the crackdown be interpreted as the latest sign that Myanmar’s reform process is reversing? U Ko Ko Gyi, would you please discuss it?

Ko Ko Gyi: Yangon Region is populous and has an estimated population of around 8 million. Prior to the crackdown in front of Yangon City Hall, there was a workers’ pay strike and also a sit-in protest which had been going on for almost a year near City Hall in Yangon. Under such circumstances, Yangon Region Government certainly has more worries than other region/state government. The authorities are concerned.

So the problem we are facing is that the same old people, the former generals, are holding power in the civilian administration. So, in the way they were trained to think everything is about security. In their way of thinking, according to the training they received, security is of utmost importance. They are accustomed to procedures of the military administration all their life. We, democratic forces, view things from the point of view of freedom whereas they view things from the military point of view and security.

So, instead of handling the issues subtly, they think of using force. So, my view is that there are lots of injustices throughout the transition. So, there will be grievances and protests in other places for other reasons. It is clear that the same old persons have the lead role in handling these issues and that this has proved to be unsuccessful.

AZ: Uncle U Kyi Myint, U Ko Ko Gyi has said that it is difficult to settle these issues subtly. In the past two years, the government started to take a violent approach in handling these issues. The Letpadaung [copper mine] case is another example. At the same time, the crackdown by red armband vigilantes took place in front of Yangon City Hall leading to strong criticism both at home and abroad that Myanmar’s reforms are reversing. So, what are your views on this, uncle?

Kyi Myint: It is crystal clear that the crackdown is not in accordance with the law. I can confirm its illegality with reference to legal books. We were arrested for several times when we had to struggle under General Ne Win’s reign for 26 years. But, a movement arose thanks to the students and it caused the government change. U Ko Ko Gyi thinks that the crackdown was against the law.

An assembly [of people] at worst can breach of Article 18 [of the Peaceful Assembly], but they portrayed it as a serious riot. I totally agree with the views and assessment of U Ko Ko Gyi. He views it not only from legal but also from political point of view. I totally support his views.

The root cause of the stalled reforms in Myanmar is that they do not want to give up power. They believe they will die if they give up power. It is their mindset and their fear. I want to ask them not to be so afraid. We did not suffer as much as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and even she has forgiven. We, the public, can also forgive them. They don’t need to take preemptive actions out of fear. I would like to request them to change their mindset, hold consultations, pay heed to people’s decision with trust, and let them choose their leader, but not to take reckless measures.

AZ: You talked about fear. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also talked about fear. She is the chairman of the [Lower House] Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee. People have questioned and criticized the role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the role of the committee and role of Parliament now. But civil society organizations, the 88 Generation Students Group and the media have presented investigative reports of those cases and put the spotlight on this issue [of repressive measures]. So, U Ko Ko Gyi, what is the role Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Isn’t it questionable?

KKG: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to make changes through Parliament. She made a tough decision to contest in the by-election [of 2012]. But so far, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has only around 40 seats in Parliament, which has more than 600 seats total. The party cannot gain an upper hand whenever there is something put to vote.

So, when we are talking about the current issues, we say that it is important that the mainstream is not lost. The mainstream I mean is the influence of democratic forces, ethnic forces and alliance forces over Parliament. Constitutional reform, ceasefire and peace, and equitable development should be at the top of the agenda and we need to keep track of them. There will be problems continuously, either land confiscation or pay strike, etc. There will be grievances for people who were subjected to many years of repression. It is important that we get the chance and authority to settle those issues.

AZ: I would like to ask you about the role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Uncle U Kyi Myint.

KM: She is acknowledged by the entire public as the people’s leader since post-1988. We hold her in high esteem. We don’t know if she sees herself as political opposition. But, we assume her as main political opposition. We rely on her and we have high expectations of her. But, I am frustrated with her activities and responses regarding the student protests. Her party flag features a peacock, which has been the emblem of student protest. She has more responsibility than other parties and individuals [regarding the protests]. I think she should speak out more about the issue and help the students.

AZ: She is widely considered as the people’s leader. But then, she keeps silent about the crackdown on student protests, drawing strong criticism politically.

I have another question: To what extent are the acts committed by those people—whether they are called people on ‘duty’, or thugs, or Swan Arshin—having an impact on national reconciliation of our country reforms began?

KKG: They [the government] are talking loudly about national reconciliation. But their actions on the ground sometimes have almost affected the national reconciliation process. Here, I think it is important that we need to make sure not to lose direction instead of playing the blame game.

Those people with red armbands emblazoned with the word ‘duty’ are modern versions of Swan Arshin. No matter what they are called, their purpose is the same. If they come to realize that the system has changed and they should no longer commit such actions and be in their old habits, it will be a good thing coming out a bad thing.

There are important things we need to focus on. There will be ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups within a few days. We need to focus on issues that still can’t be addressed because of the poor trust between two sides.

AZ: In that case, I have a question. Don’t you feel like there is a leadership gap? Some, including U Ko Ko Gyi, suggest that since the leaders can’t provide strong leadership, students, monks, people, NGOs and media have to fill the gap left by the lack of strong leadership. What do you think?

KKG: The political leader mainly focuses on the big picture. He focuses on the forest and as a result there arises an imbalance problem between him and those who measures the circumference of the tree trunks.

Personally, I think there must be harmony between political leaders and issue-based activists, should they be either environmentalists or labor rights activists or human rights activists. Political leaders should inform them clearly what they think, what they have decided, what should be done and what should not be done.

AZ: We need harmony as well as the message from good leaders. We have discussed that the message has been lost. My final question is what impact will the current violence, the reemergence of Swan Arshin, the sought-after peace with ethnic armed groups, and a lack of trust, have on the forthcoming elections this year. Please provide a short answer, U Ko Ko Gyi and Uncle U Kyi Myint.

KM: Since all the parties, as well as the international community, are trying to hold elections as promised, there will be an election. But as regards the question whether that election is an answer [to Myanmar’s problems], I do not believe that election alone will decide everything. What I believe is the election is just a factor in a movement.

AZ: You mean the election is a milestone, uncle?

KKG: In mature democracies, the loser in the election congratulates the winner and step off the stage and that is normal.

AZ: What about the countries that have never held elections?

KKG: In countries like ours which go through a transition, elections are not the only solution. It is important that we get an understanding between important forces and leaders before the election.

* This episode was recorded on the morning of Tuesday, Mar. 11. Shortly after production finished, police began a crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division, which resulted in the violent dispersal of a student assembly at the local monastery.