Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss how the National League for Democracy (NLD) will select candidates for the coming general election, the possible results of the election and what the NLD has achieved over the past five years. First NLD Vice-Chairman and Mandalay Region Chief Minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung has joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.
First of all, I would like to thank you for participating in The Irrawaddy’s Dateline program.
Zaw Myint Maung: Yes.
YN: First, I would like to ask about your health. Many are interested in your health status. In a recent interview, you said confidently that your health is good and you will continue to engage in politics. Will you run in the 2020 general election?
ZMM: As you know, I am suffering from a certain type of leukemia. But, there are medical treatments available in foreign countries that can allow me to live with it like people can live with diabetes. It is no longer that life threatening. There are new remedies, so if I keep my immune system fit and avoid contracting other diseases, the treatment can extend my lifespan. But, I need to be on medication for around two years. I am fine for light activities, but have not yet fully recovered. [Doctors] said it will take three months for me to return to normal [after my most treatment in Bangkok]. It has been just a few weeks since then. But I feel like I am stronger, and can do light activities. I have joined dozens of video conferences during ongoing quarantine [for the coronavirus].
I am committed to politics. I have said [in an interview] in Yangon that I will continue to engage in politics, playing the role assigned to me. I don’t know how it was misunderstood that I would not contest in the coming election. The journey to democracy is not yet over. We have yet to work for democracy to develop and thrive in Myanmar. In the 2015 election, we performed the role we were assigned to play. We did not choose. The party leadership in consultation decided who should be part of the Union-level government and who should be part of the region and state governments. We will continue to take the roles assigned by the party leadership in 2020.
As long as I am healthy, I will remain in politics. And I will contest the election if I am assigned by the party leadership. I joined the NLD of my own volition because I am committed to a genuine federal democratic Union. So, I will remain in politics, in the NLD, and continue to engage in politics. And I believe I have a role to play in the 2020 election.
YN: But you are also a party leader. You are vice-chairman.
ZMM: I speak like this because there are the party patron and the chairperson. I will take part in contributing to the discussion [of what role I should take].
YN: The UEC said the election will be held in November. How much has the NLD prepared for the election? How will it select candidates? I heard that the party has sought recommendations from community elders to select candidates. What is that for?
ZMM: We have a lot of experience in selecting candidates—from the 1990 general election to the 2012 by-election, the 2015 general election and by-elections in 2017 and 2018. Candidates were selected on a large scale in the 1990 and 2015 general elections.
There were some challenges in 2012 in selecting 45 candidates for that by-election, as it was the first time we had run in an election [since 1990, after boycotting the 2010 general election]. We also had the goal of running capable lawmakers and a younger generation of party members.
We formed candidate selection committees with community elders in the 1990 election. We changed the policy in 2015, and community elders were not involved in selecting candidates. They were selected by township party chapters and reviewed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC). We will use community elders in 2020. In some township chapters, the executive committee membership falls short of its standard structure. In that case, we formed organizing teams. But there can be bias when candidates are selected by the township executive committee or the organizing team alone, so we thought it would be better with the participation of community elders.
We have sent letters to township chapters about how to select community elders. We issued the instructions on June 2. First, five community elders will be selected, and those five together with the township executive committee will select candidates. I heard that it was misunderstood in some townships that candidates will be selected only by community elders, and some have formed candidate selection committees on their own.
People should not confuse it with the [government-led] township management committee, which is the committee involved with the General Administration Department, lawmakers, departmental officials and community elders, and engages in regional development works—with 100 million kyats (US$71,500) allocated for each township by the Parliament. The five community elders will be selected by the executive committee of the township party chapters, and they have nothing to do with the township management committee. Then the executive committee and community elders will select the candidates together.
If party members will run in the election, they have to submit an application. The township-level candidate selection committee will choose two candidates for first and second choice. Then, the list of nominees will be sent to the region and state chapters, and then to the central selection committee, and then to the CEC. The CEC will make the final decision.
To prevent bias, we have required that all the applications from townships be sent to the region and state chapters and then to the CEC, so that the CEC can review who the applicants were and what capacity they have. I mean that we will ensure checks at every stage in the process. It is important to select the candidates who can serve the interests of their township without bias—who is loyal to the NLD and who has political experience and insight.
YN: We heard that there are some factions within the party based on personality cults and regionalism. We heard that there has been intense rivalry between party members to be selected as candidates for the coming election. How intense is the rivalry?
ZMM: Frankly speaking, the issue is quite a headache for us. No matter how much experience we have, the central level cannot go down on the ground and control. We have to delegate some power to the lower levels. I have been receiving phone calls from lawmakers lately and they told me that there have been some disputes within the party about selection of community elders.
I told them that we have given authority to the township executive committee regarding the selection. So it is important that they make correct choices without bias in selecting city elders and candidates. We heard that there is intense rivalry. We have made it clear that we will not accept predetermined results.
There will be complaints about candidate selection. I was on the candidate selection committee at the central level in 2015. We were kept busy for around two weeks reviewing the nominees. We had to contact local residents to inquire about the background of nominees. We got some new information after such inquiries and had to replace the nominees in some cases.
In 2015, we had to select over 1,000 candidates and there were over 3,000 applications. A team was formed to review those applications. I don’t even know who was involved in that team. Those 3,000 applications were sent to the team. All those 3,000 were well-known intellectuals. And the team decided who were qualified as candidates.
So, there are candidates nominated by township executive committees and candidates selected by the party CEC. The selection committee then sorted out the preferred candidates. That time, three candidates were chosen as the first, second and third preferences. Now only two candidates will be chosen as the first and second preferences. But for those who are not selected, they can ask us the reason why they were not selected.
I don’t know why there is rivalry to be selected as a candidate. In fact, we have set criteria for candidates. If two candidates meet the criteria, and if they are equally qualified, we will give priority to the ethnic candidate. If both candidates are ethnic people, we will give priority to the younger one, and if the two are not much different in age, we will give priority to women. If that still can’t be settled, we will go to voting.
Recently, I was asked about what happens if the chairman of the township chapter’s organizing committee applies to be a candidate. I said he should then be excluded from voting.
There will be challenges in the [township-level] candidate selection committees. We have seen disputes [over the selection process] on social media. Some say candidates should be chosen based on their capacity. Some say candidates should be chosen based on the party they belong to. We have established guidelines for choosing candidates: that they must be able to serve the interests of the township [where they contest] as well as the country, and that they must be loyal to the NLD. We have set eligibility criteria. If we find the applicants do not meet criteria, we will have to review. There may be candidates who do not meet criteria at the township level. But then, they will be further shortlisted by the region, state and central [candidate selection committees].
So, we hope we will get appropriate candidates who can play a part in building a federal democratic Union. Everyone has responsibility. That’s why we have assigned duties to community elders. We have prepared for the coming election, not just relying on ourselves but also relying on city elders.
Having community elders in the process helps control the township organizing committee, and at the same time it allows the town residents to find someone who can work for their township. Perhaps we can call it participatory democracy.
YN: This is a question that constituents want to ask. Given the fact that some of the current chief ministers, including those from Yangon, Bago and Kayah, were reprimanded by the party, how many of them will be fielded in the upcoming elections?
ZMM: It is difficult to say who will contest the elections. Will they apply for candidacy at the township level? They will have to decide themselves. They are at the regional level. We are going to select candidates at the township level. If they do not apply for candidacy at the township level, they will have to be selected at the central level. If they apply for candidacy, how will the central selection committee decide? It is impossible to say who will contest the elections exactly. However, we have performance assessments not only for chief ministers but also for members of parliament. As we have conducted surveys, we have remarks from the public about their performance. Moreover, the party took action against some of them. As we will take everything into account, there are fewer chances for people who were reprimanded by the party or people against whom action or disciplinary action was taken.
YN: Many political observers think that the NLD is not likely to win a landslide victory in the 2020 elections as it did in 2015. Although it may continue to win elections in [central Myanmar], it will have to struggle in ethnic areas. For example, ethnic political parties are very powerful in states like Rakhine, Shan and Kayah. Do you agree with this?
ZMM: We will try to contest elections in as many townships as we can, or in every township where we have an office. When we contest elections in ethnic states, we will not field candidates from the lowlands there. We will field ethnic people from our party in their respective states. We will contest elections in townships where we have offices in order to form the government.
In the past, ethnic parties were divided. Now they have formed alliances and become stronger. For example, we are not as strong as them in states like Rakhine and Shan. We did not win elections in many constituencies in the states in the past too. We are trying to canvass for votes there. We have conducted research there. Therefore, I don’t want to say “Yes” or “No”. These are just assumptions. It is better if they are backed up by data and research.
We conducted research on why we did not win by-elections in Kachin and Chin states. There are many different tribes in Chin State. There are two or three different tribes even in a single village. From which tribe are we fielding a candidate? If we field a candidate from one tribe, another tribe will vote against the candidate. We have such problems in states like Chin.
Similarly, there were some places where we could not canvass for votes in Shan State. We could not even go there. We found that we had less of a chance there because we could not canvass for votes there. It is worse still in Rakhine. Some people think that we will not win a landslide victory again. I do not want to use the word landslide. But it is good for us if we can.
However, we will try to win enough seats to form the government. We will try to win in constituencies in the regions where we did in the past. We will conduct surveys in other places in states and try to win seats we won in previous elections. It is sure that we will field our ethnic candidates in states.
YN: You said the NLD will try to win enough seats to form the government. I think the NLD will need an alliance policy if it does not win enough seats. Ethnic political parties, which formed alliances with the NLD under the military regime, have said the NLD has changed its stance towards them since it was able to form the government [after the 2015 election]. They accused the NLD of becoming a chauvinistic party. Does the NLD have a policy of forming alliances with ethnic parties?
ZMM: We had a parliament representative committee in the past, including representatives of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the Rakhine Democracy League and the Zomi National Congress. We did not field a candidate in the constituency where Zomi ethnic lawmaker U Pu Kyin Shin Htan would contest. What I mean is that we still have alliances that we made in difficult times and we are still in alliance with them and have no problems between us. As for new parties, we would like to tell them that we have been working towards national reconciliation.
We have no policy of making alliances with any particular ethnic party, nor any reason to treat them as rivals. All of us who have been working towards democratic goals are in an alliance. They are working for equality, self-determination and liberty, and the stated objective of our government is to build a federal, democratic Union. As the country is a Union, the civil war will not end if we can’t build a federal, democratic Union. All ethnic parties are our allies. Frankly speaking, this is our view.
We have an ethnic affairs committee in our party headquarters. We encourage the committee to discuss issues openly. We urge them to listen to the voices of ethnic parties and report to the CEC. They can make reports with complete freedom. That is why we cannot understand the accusations that we have become estranged from ethnic parties.
It is not true that our relations have changed because we took office. We have always given priority to ethnic issues. That is why [ethnic Karen] Daw Nang Khin Htway Myint became the chief minister in Karen State. U Nyi Pu, who is ethnic Rakhine, became the chief minister in Rakhine State. Dr. Khet Aung, an ethnic Kachin and Christian, became the chief minister of Kachin State, and there is no Bamar chief minister in ethnic states. And [ethnic Shan] U T Khun Myat is the speaker of the Parliament. We have already proved that we have given priority to ethnic issues.
What else can we do to prove this? We are not just talking about it. We have proof. A vice president is ethnic Chin. We have given priority to ethnic issues. Not all the positions are taken up by members of the NLD. All ethnic groups are our allies. We have the same goals. I would like to point out that we are serious about the wishes of ethnic peoples.
YN: The NLD made campaign pledges in the 2015 election manifesto. As it is 2020 now, to what degree has the NLD fulfilled the pledges over the last five years? According to its campaign pledges, this was the time to change public life. How much has the NLD changed the lives of the people? Please explain briefly.
ZMM: We made campaign pledges. We have been implementing the campaign pledges of our party. For example, campaign pledges to amend the constitution were not just for the campaign but also an imperative for democracy, as [the 2008 Constitution] does not meet democratic and human rights norms. It is inconsistent. There are representatives in the Parliament who are not elected by the people. We should amend that.
As I have said before, we need to have the courage and wisdom to amend what should be amended. We tried to fulfill the campaign promises but [the Constitution] was enacted in such a way that it cannot be amended. We tried to change this first. Under this Constitution, we will still be far away from democracy and peace. That is why we tried to amend the Constitution, but we were not successful.
The public already knows why we were not successful. We proposed constitutional amendments because we wanted people to know this. However, we should amend it. We tried and we were not able to amend what should be amended. It is necessary for stakeholders to review whether we have enough courage or wisdom. It is necessary for stakeholders to review why our country, which ranked first or second in Southeast Asia, has fallen back to seventh or eighth position.
Similarly, peace will be farther away if each stakeholder is demanding what it wants. The peace process takes a long time. It is necessary to consider what each stakeholder can contribute. A federal Union cannot be built by Bamar alone with Bamar chauvinism. A federal Union can be built only with the Union spirit. Without peace, how can we uphold democracy? Everything is interrelated.
We are trying to restore peace at the same time. If one asks whether we have fulfilled our pledges, we have not achieved success. However, it can be seen that we are still trying. The last round of the 21st century peace conference has been delayed by COVID-19.
What I would like to say is that we have not successfully fulfilled our pledges. However, there is something some people have failed to notice. Despite criticism about the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, they have freedom to protest and stage demonstrations and to access information. More freedoms could be enjoyed during the last five years, but they failed to consider this and post about everything they want on social media. They failed to take this freedom into account.
All this shows that a certain amount of freedom has been restored, covered in the media and in interviews during the five year-term of the NLD government. However, we still do not have as much freedom as we want because there are laws like the Official Secrets Act. Progress can be seen in roads and rural highways. Fifty percent of the country has access to electricity. In Mandalay, electricity access is at 80 percent. We will supply electricity to all of Mandalay Region in 2021. We can point out progress in states and regions. Although we aimed to achieve 6.8 percent economic growth, it has dropped by 2 percent due to COVID-19.
Progress has been made in the infrastructure sector. The GDP has risen. Although some people are criticizing foreign loans, saying the loans are not profitable for the country, Myanmar’s ratio of GDP to debt is very low compared with other countries, including the US and Japan. We need foreign loans. We have taken foreign loans to create stimulus packages for economic recovery during the outbreak of COVID-19 by looking at the GDP and debt ratio.
We have achieved tangible progress like better rural roads, rural water and electricity supply and policies that are beneficial for farmers. However, we still need to make progress at the national level. We want to win the elections again and form the government to make such progress speedily.
YN: Thank you for your contributions!
You may also like these stories: