Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! In Saturday’s by-election, the NLD (National League for Democracy) did not win as many seats as it should have and only secured seven out of 13 seats, or just over 50 percent of the total seats. Is this because the NLD’s popularity with the people has declined? If this is the case, are there problems with the policies of the NLD and actions of the NLD government? How will this affect the NLD’s potential [for electoral victory] in 2020? Yangon regional lawmaker Ma Kyi Pyar and political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein join me to discuss this. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, English editor of The Irrawaddy.
NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said before the by-election that she wanted to win all 13 seats. But the party only secured seven seats. What’s worse, in three of the six constituencies where it lost, its rival Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a majority. So, the by-election was an unexpected failure for the NLD. It is fair to say that the result reflects the public’s frustration with the party. Ma Kyi Pyar, how do you assess this [as an NLD lawmaker]?
Kyi Pyar: The fact that we lost in the constituencies where we won [in 2015] is a cause for concern. We did expect that it would be hard for us to win in [Shan State’s] Laikha and [Rakhine State’s] Rathedaung. But the fact that we lost in Yangon’s Seikkan, [Chin State’s] Matupi, and [Sagaing Region’s] Tamu calls for a review. In my opinion, I would guess that the lawmakers from those areas are weak at communicating with local residents. Also, it pertains to the performance of the government. People expected a lot from the government. The performance of the government may have fallen short of their expectations over the past two years. But both the government and Parliament have been working for them. But people might not be able to see the immediate impact in some cases. We have carried out many reforms over the past two years but people may feel frustrated that the results have not met their expectations. I see it as an alarm bell for us to make greater efforts in 2019 and prepare for 2020. In my opinion, there is a real need for the government, Parliament and party to work harder and make careful preparations in 2019.
KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ma Kyi Pyar said that lawmakers might have weaknesses. What about the weaknesses of the NLD government, considering the country as a whole? The NLD lost in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin and Sagaing. This indicates something for 2020. Is it because the NLD has not lived up to people’s expectations over the past two years?
Yan Myo Thein: Considering the overall situation, as Ma Kyi Pyar said, there is an urgent need for the government, Parliament and the ruling party to review themselves before the 2020 general elections. Here, I want to focus on the NLD’s relations with ethnic parties. The USDP won the Upper House seat for Kachin State Constituency (2). The Kachin Democratic Party and the NLD were second and third. This indicates that the USDP won because votes were split between the Kachin ethnic party and the NLD. The NLD learned a good lesson from this for the 2020 election. NLD leaders should take this into serious consideration not only in Kachin but also in Shan, Chin, Mon, Karen and all the ethnic states. My suggestion is that the party should work very hard to forge alliances with ethnic parties and establish partnerships with them before the 2020 election.
KZM: Speaking of ethnic issues, joint secretary U Sai Leik of the SNLD [Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] in an interview said that though the NLD has called itself a Union party, its relations toward ethnic parties have been less warm since the 1990 general elections. He said the situation would get worse if the NLD does not fix it before 2020. Ma Kyi Pyar, how do you assess the policies of the party and the government [regarding the relationship with ethnic parties]?
KP: The problem is that the NLD is widely regarded as a Bamar party. But in all of the ethnic constituencies, local ethnic NLD candidates contested the election. Still, many view the NLD as a Bamar party. In fact, the NLD engages actively in ethnic issues. The government does as much as it can regarding budget sharing for ethnic regions. For example, it thinks about what additional things it can do for Rakhine State and about equitable development in other ethnic regions in terms of transportation and more. The government has done a lot. But the problem is that we are viewed as a Bamar party and our actions are judged according to that perception. In my opinion, it is necessary for the party to engage more warmly with ethnic groups.
KZM: It largely depends on party leaders and the government formed by the party. The problem is mainly about policy, isn’t it?
YMT: Yes, it is.
KZM: It lacks a policy regarding how to compromise with the SNLD, ALD [Arakan League for Democracy] and Kachin party. Perhaps it is because the NLD wanted to win all of the seats in the by-election.
KP: This is also possible. We don’t know much about the direction of party leaders. We have been doing many things for ethnic people. I believe there is a need to consider forging alliances with certain parties. In the 2015 election, we did have our eyes set on total victory because we wanted to form the government. Comparing state parliaments and the Union Parliament, the NLD will be able to form the government only when it is voted for by the Union Parliament. I think the NLD should negotiate with ethnic parties in ethnic regions. Given the results of the 2017 and 2018 by-elections, there is a need for party leaders to seriously consider how to improve ties with ethnic parties in the future. We have marched alongside ethnic groups in the struggle for democracy. We have fought together for democracy. I am quite sad that the vote was split and that the other party got the vote.
KZM: Critics and analysts have criticized the NLD leadership and their policies on this issue. One of the prominent figures in the party, Mandalay Region Chief Minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, said it was a lesson for him, and it showed that the party needs rebuilding and has weaknesses. In the six constituencies the NLD didn’t win, ethnic parties won three and the USDP won three. If the NLD can’t fix its policy or improve the performance of individual party members, and if in the 2020 election the ethnic parties win in the ethnic constituencies and the USDP wins some other constituencies, it will be very difficult to form a government. What I am going to say might be unlikely; it needs 51 percent of the seats in Parliament to form the cabinet. But to get that percentage, a party needs to win some 70 percent of the vote in election, right?
YMT: It is a weak point of the 2008 Constitution. According to the Constitution, 25 percent of seats are reserved for the military. So, to form a government, a political party needs to win over two-thirds of the votes in the election. It is 67 percent. In my opinion, the NLD still has time. Dr. Zaw Myint Maung said the party needs to learn a lesson. I think he should have said so earlier. The NLD should act promptly and take practical action in 2019. It should think about how to reform the government, Parliament and party. Those reforms should be noticeable and transparent, and publicized. It is important that reform takes place that way. We also need to think about a possible scenario beyond the 2020 election. If the NLD doesn’t win enough seats to elect the president, and if the combined seats of the USDP and military representatives are not enough to elect the president, then the role of ethnic lawmakers will become important. The NLD should prepare for that scenario. If necessary, the NLD should consider not contesting in constituencies where ethnic parties are likely to win in the 2020 election, and supporting ethnic parties to win in ethnic constituencies, and solicit the support of ethnic parties to win in ethnic constituencies where the USDP has strong support. The NLD should have considered such a strategy by now.
KZM: The decline in the popularity of the NLD can be attributed to the performance of individual lawmakers, individual chief ministers appointed by the NLD and the Cabinet. For example, the NLD won all three seats in Mandalay. But in Yangon, it only won one seat. It can be said that the popularity of the Yangon Region chief minister and his government has declined over the past year. People are pointing out his poor performance. There are many things [contributing to this] such as the arrest of journalists, and complaints about YBS [Yangon Bus Service]. And there may also be other things. What is your assessment of individual lawmakers and chief ministers?
KP: I think the performance of individual lawmakers is very important. It is OK if some citizens don’t know what the government is doing. But it is important that lawmakers should meet their constituents at least once. If a lawmaker helps his constituent with a request, even if it is just one time and just over the phone, I am sure she will vote for him next time. If people are convinced that though the NLD can’t improve the overall situation, NLD lawmakers stand by them and are helping them, this will be a great advantage for the party. It is important that lawmakers work hard to the best of their capacity and stand by the people. Again, whatever we do, it can’t be achieved by lawmakers alone. We can just act as mediators to fulfill the requirements of the people. So, the capacity of ministers and chief ministers and their willingness to serve the people are also very important. As Yangon is a huge region, there may be many problems. The Yangon regional government is doing what it can. But it has some disagreements with the regional parliament. Both the government and parliament are working, but there are cases when the two have no consensus. It largely depends on the party’s policies for properly training ministers and lawmakers. It is very important that the government, parliament and party work together. There are many reforms we have been undertaking.
KZM: The government has made some reforms. There were reports that the NLD would change ministers who performed poorly. But, more than two years into its administration, it has done nothing regarding this. The government seems to be reluctant to reform systematically. What do you think, Ko Yan Myo Thein?
YMT: Yes, it seems that [the government] is facing dilemmas in certain cases.
KZM: The people showed their support when President U Win Myint said after taking office that he would take a tough line on corruption. But do people have questions about other issues?
YMT: People are watching how widely and effectively the president’s words and guidelines will be taken into practice on the ground, and to what extent ministers and chief ministers will follow his guidelines. The entire population is watching this. It is important that the entire Cabinet and chief ministers are aware of this and work with considerable caution.
KP: There is a saying that it takes all sorts. So, lawmakers may be different. They are elected by the people; or in other words they are assigned to assume responsibilities by the people. They are elected to be public servants. They receive emoluments. I have talked to NLD lawmakers of the Union Parliament and they said that only one-third of NLD lawmakers work [hard], and two-thirds don’t. This is what they say, and not the official statistics—that two-thirds don’t work hard. What is your suggestion for them, Ma Kyi Pyar?
KP: Some joined the party before the election. The party accepted them out of necessity. Our leader asked the people not to judge the party’s candidates but just vote for her party, and that she would monitor them. She has kept an eye on them, as she said. But in some cases, implementing ideas is harder than we think. There are lawmakers who work hard. Some want to work hard. But they are not very familiar with the policies of the party, and they are afraid of making mistakes. Some do not have experience as politicians and lawmakers and are not very clear about what to do in their first year. I don’t expect much. If half [of the lawmakers] work hard, the country will change a lot.
KZM: So, the number of hardworking lawmakers is less than 50 percent now?
KP: We have no exact data about it. But I am frustrated [with the performance of some lawmakers] in some cases. In some cases, lawmakers work hard, but there are problems in collaborating with concerned departments. So, we need to think about various aspects. Rather than arguing about whether or not lawmakers work, I would like to urge them to work harder. It is time lawmakers bear in mind that those who are already working hard should work harder and those who have not worked hard enough should work harder.
KZM: Some critics say lawmakers including those from the NLD are being haughty. Is that so?
KP: Some of them need to improve their PR [public relations] skills. In my case, my countenance is solemn by nature.
KZM: The 2020 election will be more exciting [than the by-election]. But that is two years away. We will wait and see. Thank you for your contributions!