Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! We can conclude that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has changed the president in order to boost its performance. We’ll discuss the prospects for national reconciliation and internal peace and if there will be more friction between the government and the military, which holds a certain degree of political power under the 2008 Constitution, if Vice President U Win Myint is elected as president. Yangon Region lawmaker Ma Kyi Pyar and political analyst Ko Maung Maung Soe join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
U Win Myint was elected as vice president, and should be elected as president by the time this dateline is published. (He was elected as president on Wednesday, following the recording of this episode of Dateline). I assume that the NLD-led government changed the political landscape by changing the president two years after it took office. The difference between U Win Myint and U Htin Kyaw is that the former is more politically experienced, and has been elected three times since the 1990 general elections. He is also known for his assertiveness in Parliament. Ma Kyi Pyar, how will political landscape change if he is elected as president?
Kyi Pyar: I expect it will change a lot, but we’ll have to wait and see. U Win Myint definitely was a strong navigator of Parliament in the past two years. There must be certain reasons behind shifting such a person to lead the executive branch. We’ve heard about a possible change in the presidency, but we didn’t expect U Win Myint to be elected because he was so strong in Parliament. So, there must have been several reasons behind the shift.
First of all, the State Counselor has had to struggle in the government. There might have been hurdles and troubles. Meanwhile, the legislative branch is doing well and U Win Myint apparently has had to work hard to maintain balance with the executive branch. In some cases, the executive branch can’t keep abreast of the legislative branch. If U Win Myint becomes the president—I am sure he will—it will be a boost for the State Counselor. Since U Win Myint is a member of the central executive committee of the NLD, he already has a strong position. And as the Lower House speaker, he knows well the function of the government. So, he will be able to better control and push the executive branch. We expect him to be able to support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi a lot.
KZM: We assume that U Win Myint was chosen for a different reason. He was chosen as he is politically shrewder and more experienced. We view this as the NLD taking a step forward for the next three years. To what extent will it be effective? To what extent will it change the cabinet?
Maung Maung Soe: The new president will be chosen for two reasons. First, as Article 59 (f) of the Constitution hasn’t been changed over the past two years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred from the presidency. Again, she wants to share her responsibility with the president because of her workload and age. I would like to NLD government to be transparent in making the change. In democracies like the US, people know the next president one year in advance. In China, which exercises the one-party system, people know five years in advance who the president will be. But in our country, it is like a lottery. We don’t know who will be the president. I want the government to change this. The government should declare who will be the president and seek public support. The NLD was born of the people, and it shouldn’t be afraid to seek public support.
KZM: Do you think they will thoroughly reform the cabinet?
MMS: According to Article 235 of the 2008 Constitution, when a president dies or retires before completing his term, the existing cabinet shall be in office only until a new cabinet is formed. This means the new president may form a new cabinet, and the incumbent ministers may be or may not be included in the new cabinet. As soon as the new cabinet takes office, the incumbent cabinet has to step down. This is according to the Constitution. We will wait and see what the new cabinet looks like. In my opinion, ministers of the incumbent cabinet are too old. Most of them are 65 to 70. I want to see younger ones—they don’t need to be too young—just around 50 to 60, active, and healthy enough to perform their duties—in the cabinet. And the NLD should appoint younger members in their 40s and 50s, even if they don’t have experience, as deputy ministers to provide them a space to learn.
KZM: There must be changes to the cabinet in order to improve its capacity. Over the past two years, the performance of individual ministers, either in the field of economy or tourism, as well as the whole cabinet was strongly criticized. Ma Kyi Pyar, what is your suggestion for ministers and NLD party members?
KP: As U Maung Maung Soe has pointed out, they have experience given their age. But then they are not active or innovative enough. It would be better if we had ministers aged between 50 and 60. However, some are capable even though they are over 60. Ministers and deputy ministers are political posts. If they have political acumen and are capable of management, they can seek the recommendations from scholars anytime, in order to do their tasks well.
Over the past two years, the government did use relevant scholars. But those scholars could not think from a political point of view. The problem is that our country is not undergoing a smooth democratic transition. I think the government will be able to perform better if ministers can see things from a political point of view and seek advice from scholars.
Another problem is that the government didn’t appoint deputy ministers at first, though it now has appointed a few over time. While ministers have to work directly with permanent secretaries, because of the mergers of some ministries, ministers had to take responsibility of many departments, and as permanent secretaries are in fact the old guard, there are considerable difficulties in running the government. Much remains to be done to improve the economy and education, which are crucial for the country. As ours is a poor country, we’ve expected a lot from the tourism industry for economic development, and there is still large room for improvement in those sectors, I think.
KZM: U Win Myint appears to outshine politically and has resolute leadership. But as the president, how would he engage with the Tatmadaw? I think it is a bigger problem since national reconciliation and internal peace depend on the relationship with the Tatmadaw. Will there be more friction? What do you think?
MMS: The army chief has repeatedly said that the Tatmadaw will obey the orders of the president. Taking a look at the performance of U Win Myint over the past two years, he worked strictly in line with the law. Even if there are frictions between the forces who declared allegiance to the 2008 Constitution and U Win Myint who can strictly act on provisions in the 2008 Constitution, he will be able to handle it properly, I believe. He will be able to enforce strict discipline on the government, whose discipline is too lax. The new president will share responsibility with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the time being. He won’t handle all of the issues. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will still maintain some ministries and handle some issues. He will be able to enforce strict disciple on the ministries he handles.
KZM: U Htin Kyaw didn’t appear to have complete executive power. But I think U Win Myint will have greater executive power. Ma Kyi Pyar, what do you think?
KP: I think so. As I’ve said, the State Counselor has had to struggle alone amid troubles. I like former President U Htin Kyaw for his honesty and his way of living his life. But he seems to have had difficulty holding this political post. The new president-elect U Win Myint is not only a tower of strength in the party, but was also given the responsibility to lead the Lower House with trust, and he could perform well. So, he will be able to support the State Counselor a great deal, and I think the executive branch will be able to function more swiftly.
KZM: U Win Myint has legal expertise, and knows politically about what is happening on the ground. To what extent will he be able to play and push for peace as the president – as the peace process mainly depends on negotiation with military leaders?
MMS: The peace process is directly handled by the State Counselor through the NRPC (National Reconciliation and Peace Center). I am not sure if this responsibility will be handed over to the new president. I’ve read a news report that said the KNU (Karen National Union) said in a statement that it wants the new president to lead the peace process. But for the time being, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will still maintain this responsibility, and hand it over gradually.
KZM: President U Htin Kyaw was the 9th president of Myanmar elected by the people. And U Win Myint has become the 10th civilian president elected by the people. So, the trend of civilian presidency is continuing. To what extent will this push for political reform and what do you think will be achieved as a result in the next two or three years before the general elections in 2020?
KP: I personally have concerns for 2020. We contested the election in 2015, thinking we would make changes. But in reality, there have been a lot of difficulties. People have high expectations, and we still can’t satisfy their expectations. Things definitely didn’t get worse over the past two years, but we need to fulfill the requirements of people more. The government has started to make changes two years after taking the office, and if we can prepare as best we can in the next two, we won’t have to worry much about the 2020 election. That is, if we can satisfy the public.
KZM: We now have a new president, but no matter how much he is capable, given the current political landscape and the 2008 Constitution, it is difficult to amend provisions like Article 59 (f) and build peace. The NLD government’s expectation of peace and national reconciliation is still far from reality. How much we can expect? Do you think the military leaders will be willing to negotiate for this in next two or three years?
MMS: Peace-building is a long-term process and needs relentless effort. The NLD still has public support. And it needs to make good use of it. People will support the NLD whether they like it or not because they hate military dictatorship and don’t want the return of the military-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). So, people will support it anyway while there is no other option. The NLD should make good use of that support. What the NLD government should be aware of is economic problems. The inflation rate has been rather stable in the past two years. And the kyat-dollar exchange rate is also stable compared to the time of [former president] U Thein Sein. But, food prices have significantly increased. So, the government should be aware of the hardship facing the people. If people experience greater hardship, it will become a crisis for the government. There will be political instability. The NLD government needs to control this in the next three years. As I’ve said, peace and constitutional reform will still be difficult.
KZM: We will wait and see how Myanmar will change under the new government. Thank you for your contributions!