‘Myanmar Is Not Cursed, or a Failed State’

By The Irrawaddy 17 August 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! I am talking with National League for Democracy (NLD) Upper House lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt in Naypyitaw about whether Myanmar is “cursed” to have endured such a difficult situation since independence in 1948, whether Myanmar is a “failed state” as it is always dubbed by critics (or if Myanmar is on the verge of becoming a failed state), and how long it will take to achieve genuine democracy, which the Myanmar people have demanded since 1988. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, The Irrawaddy English editor.

You have been imprisoned, gone through many events and experienced the military dictatorship. To this day, no citizen enjoys complete freedom. Do you think our country is cursed? How do you feel?

Aung Kyi Nyunt: I don’t believe there is no solution to the curse or that it is an unbreakable curse. This will depend on changing the historical reality. If we see the historical turning points along the course of Myanmar’s history, the 8888 Uprising I think is the one and only change that was brought about by the grass roots. The monarchy ended in Myanmar not because Myanmar people rose against monarchical rule.

KZM: Colonial rule ended the monarchy.

AKN: Yes, it was because colonial rule had arrived. And capitalism was replaced with socialism without the grass-roots being involved in the process.

KZM: The changes were only instituted by leaders.

AKN: Socialism might be good for some countries, but as the people bore the brunt of a different approach to socialism here, this led to mass movements like the 8888 Uprising. This was when people started to take steps to shape the country as they wanted to see it. But then, the structure was not yet ready. So, Myanmar fell again under authoritarian rule. Political changes that represent the wishes of the people have just started to take place. So I don’t see the present challenge as an unbreakable curse. If we can make sure democracy takes root in Myanmar, the next generations will find solutions to overcome the current obstacles.

KZM: Some local and foreign critics call Myanmar a failed state, and some say it is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Some call it a fragile state. What is your assessment?

AKN: I don’t think Myanmar is either a failed or fragile state. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, considering the criteria, Myanmar is likely to graduate from the LDC [least developed countries] category. Myanmar has favorable geographical features both for agriculture and livestock breeding. It has coasts, highlands and lowlands, fertile agricultural lands and some degree of natural resources. And the climate is moderate. These are not the contributing factors for a failed state. The major challenge at present is about system change. We are in a transitional period. And I notice that we have a very civilized culture. I notice a difference between our country and Western countries. Most of the Western countries today take the rights-based approach.

KZM: The natural rights of man!

AKN: They take the rights-based approach to solving any problem. But in our society, from the time of our ancestors, the culture is obligation-based. There is a huge difference between these two. The obligation-based approach is a highly civilized one. The rights of housewives were granted in the form of obligations of breadwinners. The rights of breadwinners were granted in the form of obligations of housewives. The rights of children were granted in the form of obligations of parents. The rights of parents were granted in the form of obligations of children. There is a large difference. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remarked regarding the peace process that there is no reason not to achieve peace if [the stakeholders] think about what they can give instead of what they can get. I think her assessment derives from that obligation-based approach. So, I say Myanmar will not become a failed state, because our society is an obligation-based society.

KZM: It is still not possible to amend Article 59(f) of the Constitution, which bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the president. It’s still not possible, even after the NLD won a landslide in the 2015 general election and formed the government the following year. Then, you sought a way out by creating the State Counselor position. As a result, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, though she is not the president, has decision-making power in many areas. Have you thought about a similar way out?

AKN: The State Counselor position was not created by me alone, but by the party with the assistance of legal experts. As a result, we were able to put onto the political stage the person with the right caliber and capabilities to take the lead role in the country’s affairs. We’ve been working for constitutional change. One of the first things we have done is, as everyone knows…we’ve held the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference and so far achieved Part I and Part II of the Union Accord. We have reached an agreement in Part I that in future Myanmar will be a federal, democratic country. The NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] states that existing laws including the Constitution will be amended based on the agreements reached. This is one of the ways to amend the Constitution. If the Constitution can be changed in that way, more extensive constitutional changes are likely. If absolute consensus is reached regarding the establishment of a federal, democratic country, self-determination will be allowed and this will pave the way for regions and states to have their own constitutions. Then, there will be a significant change. But it is an ongoing process. The Constitution is being amended in Parliament, but only within the boundaries of the 2008 Constitution. This process will not bring a complete change to the Constitution, but we are working with the intention of creating some changes that will contribute to democracy. Only when these two approaches fail, should we think about a third option, based on the developments, as well as the circumstances and factors that led to the failure of those two approaches. For the time being, we do not yet have a plan B in hand.

KZM: Even if proposed amendments to the Constitution are passed, democracy is likely to remain semi-democracy until 2036. The NLD-proposed amendments only cover the period through 2036, and do not call for a further reduction of the [proposed] 5 percent of military representatives to zero percent beyond 2036. What does the NLD mean by that? Will it allow 5 percent to stay in the Parliament?

AKN: If there is only 5 percent left, they will not have influence anymore, and there will no longer be a constitutional crisis. Currently, [the military] holds a dominant position in country’s affairs, and even though they are citizens, they enjoy more rights than others. We have proposed changes so that their position becomes non-significant. This process will take 15 years. At the same time, there is the Union Peace Conference. This process is also going on. There may also be changes based on the Union Accord out of this process. So we can hope that a constitution that better suits the establishment of a country based on democracy and federalism may emerge in less than 15 years.

KZM: Clashes have been going on with ethnic armed groups for the more than 60 years since independence. The commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] talked about the military’s position that when peace is achieved and there are no longer ethnic armed organizations, the Tatmadaw will withdraw from politics. But the Constitution can’t be amended to make the Tatmadaw withdraw from politics. How can the Tatmadaw be convinced to accept changes to the Constitution?

AKN: There are views that the Constitution should remain unchanged because the country still hasn’t achieved peace. And there are also views that the Constitution itself is a barrier to achieving peace. There is also a crisis there. Some [ethnic groups] say that peace still has not been achieved because the [1947] Panglong Agreement was breached. It will bring great benefits if the Constitution can be amended to the extent that it will push forward the ongoing peace process and help convince all the ethnic groups including the Bamar that they are all equals, and no group is dominating or being dominated.

KZM: How long do you think it will take for people to achieve genuine democracy, the total control of the civilian government, that they have demanded since 1988?

AKN: This is politics, which is as changeable as it can be. Some things are expected to take years to happen, but in reality they might happen in a short period of a few weeks. Some things are expected to take place within a few days, but then, it may take years in reality. The important factor here is how big the hearts of decision-makers are; to what extent they are willing to work for the country and what type of country they would like to hand over to their descendants. This is all we can predict in the context of Myanmar.