What Will 2020 Mean for Myanmar’s Democracy?

By The Irrawaddy 18 January 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Happy New Year to you all! The new year has started with new problems. As everyone knows, fighting has begun between the US and Iran. We will discuss if there will be new problems or if old problems will continue to exist in Myanmar. As everyone knows, three fundamental problems continue to exist: democratization is still fragile, there is still no tangible improvement in national reconciliation and the internal peace process is at risk. Including these, we are likely to experience around four or five problems in 2020: the ICJ [International Court of Justice] is likely to deliver rulings regarding the genocide allegations against Myanmar in January; the conflict over constitutional amendment is likely to continue between the Myanmar military and the NLD [National League for Democracy] government; and we will see if the fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army [AA] in Rakhine State will intensify, and how the general elections, the most important event in 2020, will turn out. Writer U Kyaw Win and Lower House lawmaker Ma Zin Mar Aung [of the NLD] join me to discuss these. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The new problem for the world is war between the US and Iran. And for Myanmar, those problems which I have mentioned may continue, and new problems may also arise from nowhere. What are your expectations for this year, and what is your assessment regarding the ICJ?

Kyaw Win: [The Gambia] proposed five or six provisional measures [against Myanmar]. If [the ICJ] rules against them, these problems can be averted. If the ICJ approves, applying some or all provisional measures, the problem with the ICJ is that it only has authority to give rulings and does not have authority to enforce the rulings. So, it must go through the UN Security Council. If so, Myanmar can only rely on China and Russia. This will increase Myanmar’s dependency on China. This is not good. We need to maintain friendly ties with all the countries. Thinking optimistically, [the ICJ’s rulings] will help improve relations between the government and the military. But again, closer ties between them, against the backdrop of Burmanization, will increase the concerns of ethnic groups. Their cooperation, if made in the spirit of the Union, can however help ease the concerns of ethnic groups.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, suppose international pressures like that from the ICJ push the military and the government closer, and ethnic people feel neglected due to their cooperation and the perceived Burmanization: is this because the ethnic affairs policy or the idea of federal democratic Union articulated by the NLD is not convincing enough to ethnic parties?

Zin Mar Aung: The NLD was the first to support the Mae Thaw Rah Hta Declaration [by ethnic armed groups] under the military regime, at a time when even speaking of federalism was strictly prohibited. The NLD stood by ethnic people. Some of the political leaders of the NLD from that time are still around, but some are no longer [in the party]. There was a strong bond between ethnic leaders and founding members of the NLD when the party was part of the opposition. But after the party came to power, their relations have become a little bit icy. When they see each other personally however, they still recount the past and treat each other warmly. As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in the NLD, national chauvinism will not rise in the party. I say so because we can see a balance in her speeches and writing. She advised us against doing politics in Myanmar without knowledge of ethnic issues. She is in the government for various reasons and she has to engage with the military around the topic of national reconciliation. As long as her leadership is with the NLD, I believe national chauvinism will not rise in the party.

KZM: Speaking of the problems Myanmar is likely to face in 2020, there are four problems: the ICJ, the constitutional crisis, the peace process—particularly between the Myanmar military and the AA—and the election. What is your overall assessment of them and do you think there will be bigger problems?

KW: I am saddened by the Rakhine issue. It should have never taken place. So, let’s take a look at why it happened. It is fair to say that last year started with Rakhine and ended with Rakhine. I am very pleased with the NLD government and I strongly support it, but I have some frustrations, particularly [around its failure to amend Article 261]. Frankly speaking, Article 261 paves the way for the unitary state. It is unacceptable. The NLD itself proposed amending it under the previous government. But after it came to power, it ignored [the article]. But it is understandable—they might have concerns that if both the Rakhine State Parliament and the Rakhine State government are dominated by the Rakhine party, they will become uncontrollable and the Rohingya issue will get worse, attracting greater international pressures. I don’t think it is a cause for concern. My suggestion is that we follow the example of India. In India, parliaments are allowed to operate freely, but are checked and balanced by state governors appointed by the president. We have no governor position, but have the General Administration Department (GAD). The GAD is now under the control of the civilian government. The President can appoint one of the reliable administrators as the state governor. This idea may work if there is coordination. So, my suggestion is for the NLD to take a moderate approach on Article 261 rather than totally rejecting it. In the 2010 general election, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party contested and did well. In 2015, it merged with the Arakan League for Democracy and contested as the Arakan National Party. It won a majority in the Rakhine State Parliament. But it can’t form the state government because of Article 261. Many Rakhine youth have monitored this with keen interest. And most of them have now joined the AA. So, Article 261 is partly to be blamed for the AA becoming this strong in such a short period of time. The youth, if convinced that they can’t rely on the legal and democratic framework as expected, will be captivated by armed struggle. I have experienced the same phenomenon. So, I sympathize them and I don’t want to blame them.

KZM: What you said is reasonable. This issue is connected with charter amendment. To us, it appears that the NLD is trying to amend the whole Constitution, not just Article 261. I heard that the bill to amend the Constitution will be submitted to the Parliament when it resumes later this month. As you know, it is hard to win the support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers and hold a referendum [to approve the amendments]. Ma Zin Mar Aung, how large will the constitutional crisis get in 2020? What do you think of the points made by U Kyaw Win?

ZMA: Article 436 (a) and (b) are not much different—(a) requires an additional referendum [to amend certain sections of the Constitution] and (b) requires only the support of 75 percent of lawmakers [to amend the remaining sections]. So, any amendment needs the approval of military lawmakers [who are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in Parliament]. That’s why the NLD took a moderate approach, also allowing the military and other parties to take part in the amendment process. When the NLD was in the opposition, it prepared amendments it wanted to make to the Constitution. But it has now proposed different amendments as it seeks a moderate approach in order to cater to the military. Amending Article 59 (f) [which bars anyone with parents, a spouse or children who are foreign citizens from holding the presidency] needs a referendum, in addition to the vote in the Parliament. Other amendments can be made with only 75 percent of the votes in the Parliament. The secretary of the Charter Amendment Committee Dr. Myat Nyana Soe recently said that both kinds of amendments will be submitted. This year’s Parliament session will start with a debate on the Constitution, and it will be intense.

Regarding Article 261, we have concerns. Though the party has not discussed this officially, we individual lawmakers in the party have concerns because there are also military lawmakers in regional and state parliaments. We have concerns that ethnic parties may not benefit at all if the military lawmakers, who also hold 25 percent of seats in regional parliaments, ally with a particular party. We have discussed the potential of a package deal to amend Article 261 along with a plan to reduce the military’s seats in the regional parliaments over time. Ethnic allies of the NLD are frustrated with the amendments proposed by the party. They think the NLD’s proposed amendments are not very strong for federalism.

KZM: Clashes may continue if the AA, or Rakhine youth who support the AA, feel frustrated about constitutional amendments, as U Kyaw Win suggested. Civilians were killed in recent mine blasts. To what extent can this impact the election? Elections could not be held in certain places in northern Shan State [in 2015]. If elections can’t be held in Rakhine State due to the clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA, and if there are no lawmakers elected as a result, there might be other forms of administration. What is the worst-case scenario in your view?

KW: I wish there were a [democratic] alliance led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But this won’t happen and ethnic parties will be frustrated about it. Ethnic parties may also be unhappy that the NLD did not do anything about Article 261 after it came to power. The party focuses too much on statuary rather than the spirit—I mean regarding the bridge [named after General Aung San] and the statues [of General Aung San which the NLD built in ethnic areas]. Everyone respects him. They especially want his pledges fulfilled [for equal rights and political autonomy for ethnic nationalities]. But [the NLD] unnecessarily focuses on statue making and people are frustrated by it. Recently, an NLD spokesperson said democracy will be given precedence over federalism. Again, the party also recently said that it would not ally with anyone but will work alone. Ethnic people will not be happy about that. Taking these into consideration, in some regions, the NLD will definitely win the election because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has tremendous influence. But in [ethnic majority] states, especially where ethnic parties have merged, ethnic parties will have a better chance. The NLD will win the election, but it may not be able to form the government. If it can form the government by itself, it will be OK. But if it has to form a coalition, it has to choose between allying with ethnic parties or other forces. There will be different problems based on its choices. To establish a federal Union, it has to partner with ethnic parties. It is the only option, I think.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, the NLD’s popularity in ethnic states has declined in recent years as U Kyaw Win has suggested. Do you think the NLD may not win enough seats to form the government by itself?

ZMA: It is difficult to say, as proper surveys have not been conducted. But we are aware of the situation. It will not be as easy for us as in 2015. New elections are always challenges for ruling parties. So, there are greater challenges for the NLD than for other parties in 2020. The NLD lost most of the seats in ethnic majority areas in the by-elections. We need to take lessons from this. We need to be very careful with regard to the party policy and choosing candidates. We need to review our strategies regarding relationships with ethnic parties. Each constituency is unique and only when we can meet specific needs of specific constituencies can we achieve an electoral victory similar to that in 2015.

KZM: I believe the 2020 election will be the second free and fair election since 1960 whose results will be honored. The first was the 2015 election. The 1990 election was free and fair, but [the military] did not recognize the results. Ma Zin Mar Aung, how much do you think the NLD still needs to do to win? If we say the main problem is national reconciliation, the elected government and Tatmadaw [military] leaders are the key players. And the Constitution is also key. How can [the party] deal with national reconciliation and power sharing if the NLD can’t form a government by itself?

ZMA: As far as national reconciliation is concerned, unlike other countries, we have many parties involved. We have to work with at least three parties. It is very difficult to negotiate. If we prioritize a particular issue, some may feel that other issues like ethnic ones are not important. If we build trust with only one party, we seem to distance ourselves from another party. We need to be cautious about such problems. There are too many issues to mention. I think only after we have undergone another two election terms progressing towards democratization, without a U-turn, will we be able to lay the firm foundation for democracy and a federal system. If we get nowhere during that period, it is difficult to predict. However, federalism and democracy are two sides of a coin and we cannot regard them as separate issues. If we move forward two more election terms after dealing with all the issues as a whole, then we will be able to lay a sound foundation.

KZM: U Kyaw Win, as you just said, our transition at present has been slowed. Peace and national reconciliation are up in the air. Democratic transition has gotten nowhere. Will peace, national reconciliation and transition be affected if the NLD does not win enough votes to form a government?

KW: It depends on the steps taken by the NLD to win the next election.

KZM: I don’t think the NLD will change its main policies.

KW: What do you mean by main policies? Do you mean the policy of not allying with ethnic parties or others?

KZM: Politically, the NLD will have to ally with some parties to form the government. Only then will the NLD be able to form the government. If the NLD does not win a landslide victory as it did in 2015, will the democratic transition be affected?

KW: It depends on the decision of the NLD, whether it will ally with ethnic parties or another political force. Frankly speaking, another political force means the Tatmadaw, which already has its place in the legislature. However, it should therefore not try to take control of any more members in the cabinet beyond the three ministries it already controls. That is the best choice for the Tatmadaw. Therefore, the NLD should think about allying with ethnic parties. The NLD needs to review its decision not to ally with any political force. If the NLD allies with ethnic parties, it will be stronger. The transition will be better.

KZM: So, it will be better if the NLD does not win in a landslide?

KW: Yes, if it does not win a majority. There is a lot of dissatisfaction on the side of the ethnic groups. Frankly speaking, if we compare the two parliaments of the previous and current governments, the voices of ethnic parties are less represented in the current Parliament than they were in the previous parliament. We need to listen to the voices of ethnic groups in Myanmar. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in the past, we cannot go into politics if we cannot understand ethnic issues. If the NLD listens to the voices of ethnic groups openly, the alliance could be more beneficial for the transition.

KZM: Some people have said the Tatmadaw is the most powerful and strongest institution in Myanmar. Its leadership is interested in politics and constitutionally involved in politics. What would happen if the Tatmadaw wants to get a hold of a political post like the presidency?

KW: Frankly speaking, it doesn’t matter if military leaders take the presidency or any other post, as long as they have resigned from the military. The Tatmadaw as an institution, however, should not take more posts, as it has already taken three ministerial posts and its share of seats in the Parliament. It is better for the Tatmadaw not to take any more posts in the government. The NLD does not need to think much but to ally with ethnic parties.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, the transition means the gradual reduction of the political role of the Tatmadaw, in my opinion. That is why the constitutional crisis is so aggravated. How tense will the confrontation between the two sides become?

ZMA: I have discussed this in previous years. In my opinion, there has not been enough space for political dialogue between top leaders. There are many stakeholders in the [21st-Century] Panglong [peace conference]. They convey the voice of their respective groups but they are not decision-makers. We have a leader with a mandate from the people for state building. The Tatmadaw also has its structure and mandate. This is also the case with the EAOs. Although there are debates in the Parliament, as long as there is no genuine political dialogue among civilian leaders, military leaders and EAO leaders outside the Parliament, the problems will persist. This was stated in previous years in peace negotiations. As long as we do not have genuine political dialogue, the problems will persist.

KZM: Do you think there will be genuine dialogue in 2020?

ZMA: It depends on the how much the people push for it. We are doing as much as we can. Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi relies on the public, it depends on what the public calls for and how rulers care for the will of the people. Frankly speaking, the public has to push for changes in some cases but final decisions will be made by leaders. Therefore, if there are common visions and missions shared among the leaders and they hold negotiations, there will be a clear future for the country. At present, we can just guess what will happen to the country. Today, we have a [Joint-Ceasefire Implementation Coordinating Meeting]. We have to pray that they reach agreements at the meeting. It is difficult to predict. [Note: For an update on the meeting, please see here.]

KZM: There are uncertainties for our country in 2020. U Kyaw Win, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages facing our country in 2020?

KW: I would not like to answer the question directly. I would like to think about what Ma Zin Mar just said. We don’t have much doubt about the position of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She intentionally stood with the Tatmadaw at the ICJ to prevent its reputation from being damaged. It was good of her but some people do not like her position. However, I like this because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician. She thinks politically. She is not looking for the absolute truth but engaging in politics. I agree with her but there is a problem among the NLD sympathizers. Some are launching attacks on the Tatmadaw without rhyme or reason. If swearing at the Tatmadaw can help improve the country, we will also join them in swearing. However, nothing will be achieved from swearing at the Tatmadaw. To the contrary, swearing may make the Tatmadaw have doubts about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They may think she is ambiguous. We need to take such things into consideration. The leadership of the NLD needs to control them. It is concerned with the relations with the Tatmadaw. Meanwhile, the NLD needs to try to eliminate doubts among the ethnic groups. It is necessary for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to try to solve these issues. If the NLD is able to maintain such relations with both sides, it will be beneficial for the country. Otherwise, the country will get nowhere. There will be no progress.

KZM: It seems that there is no trust among political forces and leaders including the Tatmadaw, the NLD and ethnic groups. They have their own reasons. Thanks for your contributions.

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