Will Myanmar’s New Government Avoid the Mistakes of the Past?

By The Irrawaddy 5 December 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! What people are most interested in and the most important thing after the election is how the winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will form the new government. While the people overwhelmingly voted in support of the NLD, the party needs to form a government that can satisfy the people. We’ll discuss how the NLD can form such a government.

People have expressed frustration over the government formed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016. We’ll discuss what the NLD is considering for the incoming government.

Everyone can imagine their ideal government. Ma Thida [Sanchaung], a writer and political analyst who has engaged in politics since the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and Ko Mya Aye, one of the leaders of the Federal Democratic Force, have joined me to share their views on what the ideal government should look like. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

People have overwhelmingly voted for the NLD again. Ma Thida, how should the NLD leadership—including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—form the government? What would the ideal government look like? I am not asking you to envision a new form of government. I mean a government that is ideal for the people; that is to say a government that is pragmatic given the complexity of the country.

Ma Thida: To compare it with sculpting, sculptors must know what sculptures they want to create, and they must know what type of wood is best suited for their intended sculptures. Ministers are in political positions, and they must have political vision. If they are to build a federal democracy, they must have a clear understanding of what it is and must have the technical expertise necessary to push for progress. We are still in a transitional period, and therefore I want to have a government that can build a foundation for farsighted political changes beyond 2025.

KZM: There are many difficulties during this transition period. Political problems with the Tatmadaw and former cabinet members still need to be resolved. At the same time, we must have economic growth. Peace is critically important. The constitutional amendment process has reached an impasse. What kind of government would be able to solve those problems?

Mya Aye: My view is that people must be carefully adapted to the right political system gradually, because the country is in chaos. In so doing, the ruling party must establish and stick to the principles. It is important that politicians have principles. Yes, they do have principles. I want to have a government that shares the principles of democracy, human rights and humanity.  It would be perfect if we could have a government founded on principles of national reconciliation, and in which ethnic parties could participate and work together for shared goals. Only when we have the right political system, will the country’s economy develop.

KZM: There are 24 ministries under the NLD government. If we exclude the three ministries controlled by the military, that leaves 21. Taking a look at those 21 ministries over the past five years, two-thirds of them drew widespread criticism for poor performance and corruption. The government dismissed some ministers over corruption scandals. There are ministers who performed poorly and failed to pass the test. I think those who selected them made poor choices. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD leader U Win Htein were among those who selected the ministers. We heard that they appointed those who are close to them. Ma Thida, what measures do you think should be taken to prevent the same mistakes in the future?

Ma Thida: Public support is the key in doing politics. If possible, I want a cabinet formed with elected MPs. The party favored experience over political farsightedness in selecting ministers in 2016. Most of the ministers are testimony to that. They apparently do not have the will to push for political change.

The NLD said it will work together with all. If that is the case, there are politicians of high caliber in ethnic parties. If the NLD wants to invite them to its cabinet, it should consult and make arrangements in advance. It would be better if only elected MPs could become ministers and the President, because those positions need political commitment and political passion to get the job done.

When the NLD chose experienced persons [over elected MPs with political commitment and passion] for ministerial positions, what happened next on most occasions was they were manipulated by permanent secretaries who have more experience. The ministers have only a little experience in their respective fields, but permanent secretaries have worked their whole lives in ministries and they have no political passion. As a result, their manipulation gave the NLD a bumpy ride.

KZM: Yes, there were shortcomings. But to be fair, there was no experience on hand in 2016. NLD vice chair Dr. Zaw Myint Maung and spokesman Dr. Myo Nyunt said they are now choosing very carefully to make sure they get the right people in the right places. Ko Mya Aye, what is your suggestion to the NLD leadership, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who will choose the cabinet?

MA: The most important thing is ideology. They must have a clear-cut ideology. In establishing democracy, if there were to be too much focus on nationalism—I am OK with a reasonable degree of nationalism—there would be ideological conflicts. Then, the government would lack direction, and problems would arise within the government. So, we want the NLD to take that into consideration and take a fully democratic approach. However, the 2008 Constitution bars the party from doing so. There will be some difficulties.

KZM: I agree ideologies are important. People apparently believe that NLD will be able to build a better and more genuine democracy than other parties especially the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). People have the same view about establishing federalism. By voting for a party, people assign duties to that party to realize their wishes. But people can’t intervene when the party chooses its cabinet. Ma Thida, what kind of ministers should the party choose to deliver public service? People were somewhat satisfied with the performance of certain ministries including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. But the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs were criticized for their incompetence. Those ministries barely have any achievements. What would you say to those ministries?

Ma Thida: Here I would like to talk about some fundamentals. In principle, there should not be an Information Ministry in a democratic country. Changes could not be introduced in that regard over the past five years. I want the party to make changes in the next five years.

Changes can be made gradually by enacting a “right to information” law. In that scenario, there would not be state-owned media and military-owned media. There would only be information departments, and the Culture Ministry could take over the Information Ministry’s responsibility to oversee the film industry.

There is a need to reconsider the structure of the ministries. Even if the party can’t abolish the ministry right now, it should adopt and implement a policy to abolish it after 2025. There were also serious weaknesses in the education sector.

The Information Ministry exists only at the Union level and there are no information ministers at the regional and state levels. When it comes to the performance of the cabinet, we should not just focus on the Union-level government—regional governments are also important.  Speaking of education, if we are to establish a federal democracy, nurturing human resources is critically important. Education ministers appointed to the Union and regional governments must be able to implement the kind of education policy that contributes to federal democracy, and they must work as a network for that. I happened to point out recently that vocational training on gems polishing is provided in Naypyitaw, but not in Kachin and Mandalay’s Mogok, where the gems are produced. People have to travel to attend the training. If they could learn those skills in their hometowns, it would enable the region or state where they live to easily utilize those human resources. Ministries should take this point into consideration if we are to establish federalism. If the party can appoint Union-level cabinet members who have the vision to work together with cabinet members of regional and state governments, there will be tangible improvements in the next five years. The same is true for ethnic issues. Instead of appointing unelected ethnic politicians, it would be better to find ways to cooperate with elected ethnic MPs.

KZM: The current government is called the “old government” because most of the ministers are of an advanced age. The government to be formed in 2021 will need smarter ministers, who have technical expertise and can work actively and correctly, regardless of age. It is important that the right people are assigned to the right places. Ma Thida suggested that it would be better if ministers are elected MPs. But some technocrats will not compete in electoral politics. For example, Finance and Planning Minister U Soe Win is not an elected official, but he has the right abilities. Ko Mya Aye, what are your suggestions to the party when it comes to appointing the incoming government?

MA: Ministers are tasked with helping to design government policies. The region and state chief ministers have to manage their regions and states according to the policies adopted by the [Union] government. So the policymakers at the Union level are crucial.

As far as I’m concerned, political policies are of the utmost importance. The 2008 Constitution is a barrier to federalism. But the government can decentralize. There were many issues with the Education Ministry over the past five years, including issues related to the National Education Law. If we are to establish federalism, the education minister has to think in advance about how to implement an education system that contributes to federalism. And if federalism still can’t be established, the government should think about how to decentralize and devolve power to regional and state governments. The Union ministers must know exactly where the country is heading.

To summarize, the most important thing is for the Union ministers to have the political vision needed to steer the country in the desired direction. And they must work together with technocrats. Technocrats only have technical expertise, and they might not be able to apply them from a political perspective. Only politicians have the political insight to do so, I think. The government should take different things into consideration in selecting different ministers.

KZM: NLD spokesman Dr. Myo Nyunt has said that the party has decided on two or three positions and is taking steps to avoid making the same mistakes it made in 2016. Before the election, the President’s Office introduced a new concept—a national unity government—in the politics of our country. It can be defined as a government based on national unity. It is a new concept.

Despite the political complexity and the diversity of organizations in Myanmar, people are not divided in choosing their government. In the US, people are divided when it comes to their choices. But here people are not divided. The majority of the 27 million voters voted for the NLD. So they are united in that regard, I think.

Ko Mya Aye, what is your view of a “national unity government”, given the situation I’ve mentioned? Do you think it is practical and constructive or an opportunity for those who want to take office?

MA: I accept the concept of a national unity government in principle. I think it is necessary. People will have their own views of how a national unity government should be formed. The ruling party must have principles about it. There is a common agreement among ethnic people, the Tatmadaw and the government. Only the wording may be a little different. The government calls it a democratic, federal Union. The wording in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA] is a Union based on democracy and federalism. So, there is a common agreement and we can work toward that end. We have the same goal. The Tatmadaw, ethnic people, the government and other democratic forces can join hands to form a government based on the same goal.

Of course, there are details that need to be negotiated. If they have the same goal and the same basic principles, it would be easier to work out an agreement on other matters. There is a need to recreate political space for ethnic parties not only at the Union level but also at the state level. Amending Article 261 of the Constitution is another part of the question. There is a need to think about how to create political space for ethnic parties so they can choose their own chief ministers and manage the state’s affairs on their own. One way or another, that can be made to happen. This idea is based within the framework of what the government can do. Another option outside the government’s framework is to adopt a new Constitution that meets the goals of both democracy and federalism. There is a need to work on both ends. Under the 2008 Constitution, the cabinet is appointed by the President and not by the Parliament, though it has to approve the president’s nominees. It would be perfect if a national unity government can be formed on the principles I’ve mentioned. And it is necessary to do so, I think.

KZM: Over the past five years, there was barely any progress due to the Constitution. And the process to amend the Constitution has reached a deadlock. It is likely that the same situation will prevail during the next five years if there is no give and take between the two sides. So, the NLD has introduced the concept of a national unity government. Ma Thida, what is your view on it, and how practical do you think it is? Speaking of political capital, only the NLD has a mandate. So, what is your assessment?

Ma Thida: The idea of a national unity government was mentioned at a press conference held by the President’s Office. I don’t view it as the official policy of the NLD. The idea was mentioned at a time when the NLD had obtained a huge popular mandate and legitimacy. By saying [national unity government], [defeated parties] apparently want to question the legitimacy and mandate of the NLD.

After the NLD won its majority, [the defeated parties] argued about how the government should be formed. It is not a good idea for defeated parties to question the legitimacy of the NLD, which has obtained a popular mandate. As you said, 27 million people voted in the election, and most of them voted for the NLD. Public recognition of the NLD is undeniable. Defeated parties should not undermine the legitimacy of the NLD.

At the same time, if the NLD seeks to reform all the institutions in the next five years and if respective institutions cooperate with it, we will definitely be able to create a political environment beyond 2025 in which there will be fewer disputes over the formation of a government. If the defeated parties push too hard to get included in the government, those pressures could lead in both positive and negative directions. This fact must be taken into consideration. Defeated parties must be very careful to avoid putting too much pressure on the NLD, because it might drive the party to respond arrogantly. This would disrupt the balance.

KZM: So we are discussing the roles of individuals and policies. There is a need to change the policies. But the problem at present is how to choose the right individuals. This is an urgent matter the government needs to deal with. In some cases, it may not be able to amend policies immediately. To amend policies requires great effort. For example, despite serious efforts, the Constitution still can’t be amended. If there are moderate people in concerned institutions, perhaps it might be able to amend the Constitution. It depends on individuals. The NLD leadership, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, might now be selecting ministers for the incoming government. They will nominate them in March. And there has been speculation about who will take the helm of which ministries, including who will become the president. Ko Mya Aye, what is your message to NLD leaders?

MA: Things are not very favorable for our country.  We can’t go through the next five years the same way we did over the past five years. If that happens, our country will be dragged into a whirlpool of political problems. The new government must know exactly where it is heading. In fact, all politicians have known since 1988 what people want. The new government should approach political problems based on the wishes of the people. Regarding the federal Union that ethnic people desire, it should adopt clear, fundamental principles and take decisive actions and it should be able to make democratization successful. This is the government I want to see.

KZM: What about you, Ma Thida?

Ma Thida: Earlier I compared the government to a sculptor. I want a good sculptor who knows which wood to cut and carve well. And I want it to focus on all the institutions, rather than administrative mechanisms alone. And it should be a people-centered government.

As a government that won office with the support of the people, it should do decisively and boldly what should be done in the interests of the people. But I want it to respond delicately. I want it to focus more on political changes.

I can understand that they were not able to perform well over the past five years because they had to see what they could and could not do and how others would respond under the theme of national reconciliation. But this time, the government should display its capability. I want to ask the government to lay sound foundations for political change in the next five years so that important changes can continue in the long run.

KZM: I hope the incoming government has the right people; only then will the entire government be functioning properly. Only then will the grassroots will have secure livelihoods. Thank you for your contributions!

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