Myanmar’s 1988 Uprising Leaders Found New Party, Rally Voters of All Ages

By The Irrawaddy 18 July 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, I’m joined by U Ko Ko Gyi, who was a student leader in the 1998 pro-democracy uprising and has now founded the People’s Party to contest the 2020 election. I am The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Both the leaders of the People’s Party as well as its members are students or student leaders who participated in the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and the party has garnered significant interest. Since you have been travelling around the country to rally support for your party, what are your expectations? To what extent has your party made preparations for the election and in which constituencies does it plan to contest in the coming general elections?

Ko Ko Gyi: It has been 32 years since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising took place. We established the party with the intention that our 88-generation as well as older and younger generations could come together to realize the demands made in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and continue our unfinished duties. The party is only one-and-a-half years old. While we were trying to rally the support of people and open party offices in regions and states, COVID-19 broke out unexpectedly. Now our organizing work has stalled, and we are only now planning to open party offices. Our party chapters outside Yangon told me that around 100 candidates may run in the election, but we are still scrutinizing the applicants. When this review is over, we will be able to officially announce how many candidates will run and in which constituencies and for which parliaments. For the time being, we are still reviewing.

YN: We heard that you were focused on establishing a policy alliance on your tour. Could you explain more about this?

KKG: As we are travelling across the country [to drum up support for the party], and as now is the time to prepare for the election, one of our tasks is to select the most qualified candidates thorough a careful search. We will also implement a policy alliance regarding ethnic politics.

Here, people should understand not just this political terminology but also its very essence. A policy alliance does not mean a coalition government, which is only about sharing of seats in the Parliament and the cabinet. That would be no more than power politics. Our country does not have much experience with policy alliances. The public notion of an alliance is just the sharing of seats in the cabinet and the Parliament. We are preaching the policy alliance not just for the 2020 election, but we have urged the parties to have a serious discussion about which policies we can cooperate on after 2020.

There are many problems facing the country and some of the significant problems are peace, a federal Union and civil-military relations—the fact that unelected military appointees are holding seats in the Parliament, and the military is holding key ministries in the government. Because of these issues, we have to continue to work to amend the Constitution. In doing so, rather than speaking only about what changes we want to see, we should discuss how we can cooperate to take a pragmatic and results-oriented approach.

The Rakhine issue is now being labeled as an international issue. Similarly, there are other economic and investment problems. There is a need to create a lot of jobs for the post-COVID-19 period, to take care of migrant workers who have returned to Myanmar, and to rehabilitate businesses impacted by COVID-19. Though [the government] is providing assistance to businesses hit by COVID-19, there is a need to monitor the effectiveness of its assistance programs and adjust them as necessary.

We believe that an individual or an institution or a party alone can’t solve all those problems. The idea of a national unity government has a very serious meaning. Our call for creating a political environment in which nationally important figures and institutions can work together to address national-level problems is far more serious than a coalition government, which is just about sharing of power. That’s why we are saying a person and a party alone can’t solve all the problems of the country, but we need a national unity government. This is our suggestion to address the long-running problems that we will continue to face.

YN: You talked about civil-military relations, the amendment of the 2008 Constitution and the military’s hold on 25 percent of seats in the Parliament—and you faced the military on the streets during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. As you run in the election, you will have to face them again on the political front: how would you define the role of the Tatmadaw [military] in what you call the “national unity government”?

KKG: It is necessary to confront reality. Before 1988, the country was under a one-party dictatorship, which was born out of the military government that seized power in 1962. From 1962 to 1974, the country was under military rule. From 1974, the country was under the rule of a military-backed party. From 1988 to 2011, the country was under the military regime. The military controlled the country—not just 25 percent but 100 percent. Since the country started to be governed under a constitution, they controlled the country by reserving 25 percent of all Parliament seats.

In other words, the military is retreating gradually. Although it is retreating, they drafted the Constitution so that the remaining 75 percent cannot do as they desire and amend the Constitution without the support of the military. Generally speaking, we have 75 percent of the Parliament seats. It is very important to strengthen this 75 percent in terms of administration.

The military will continue to participate in the national reconciliation government like it is participating now. It currently holds three ministries and the 2008 Constitution says, if the military wants to appoint military personnel to more ministries, they can do so with the approval of the commander-in-chief of defense services. But on the other hand, political parties do not have a say in the peace process unless they have at least a representative in the Parliament.

I will point out what is really important in symbolic politics. Our party also has ethnic members like Shan, Chin, Mon etc. When we say we represent ethnic groups, this is meant generally. In reality, there are ethnic leaders traditionally recognized by their respective ethnic communities. It is necessary to invite them in solving conflicts or national issues. The military will also participate in politics as it does now.

YN: The People’s Party has recently invited the 1962, 1974, 1988, 1996 and 2009 generations, who grew up under the military regimes, to join the party. What promise will the People’s Party bring for the new millennium generation, which has grown up in the age of the Internet and social media?

KKG: As far as we know, our generations suffered a lot of injuries. Even in the 1988 generation, there are people who took up arms or who were imprisoned in different jails as they lost their youth under the military regimes. There is a gap between the new generation and us. The new generation is not burdened by the past. They are more pragmatic. They consider what chances the current political situation will bring about. When we were younger, we had to go to old book shops to read old books. However, they have the Internet. They can study or work abroad. They have many opportunities. They have more openness and their horizon is wider.

We need to think about them pragmatically. It is more pragmatic for the leadership of the nation to consider creating education and job opportunities for them. However, we would like to inform them that it is impossible to create such opportunities without taking an interest in politics. Who will emerge as leaders in the elections and what are their visions and attitudes towards the new generation? To elect such leaders, it is important for the new generation to take an interest in politics. It is lopsided if they think only of opportunities without taking an interest in politics. Therefore, I would like to urge, for the first time, voters age 18 or 19 to cast their votes actively by considering everything carefully. If possible, I would like to urge them to engage in politics not just as a voter but also as a person to create opportunities for them, by themselves, despite the 25 or 30-year-old age minimums for running in elections.

YN: Thanks for your contribution!

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