Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. It is certain that the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide in the November election, will elect the president and form the government next year. This week, we’ll discuss what the economic and political policies of the NLD will be. Political commentator Ko Wa and Irrawaddy’s peace and ethnic affairs reporter Ko Kyaw Kha will join me for the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.
Ko Wa and Ko Kyaw Kha, NLD’s election policies can be seen in its manifesto. I think it is important because NLD will form government and adopt policies based on this. The manifesto focuses on four points for bringing about change in Burma: firstly, ethnic affairs and internal peace; secondly, emergence of a Constitution which can guarantee peaceful co-existence of the nation; thirdly, the emergence of an administration which will fairly protect the people; and fourth, is ensuring development along with safety and freedom. So, the NLD gives top priority to ethnic affairs and internal peace. Ko Kyaw Kha, the NLD has explained in more detail in its manifesto. How much do you think NLD will be able to do this and how is the response of ethnic leaders you have talked to?
Kyaw Kha: It is quite good that ethnic affairs and internal peace top the manifesto. Ethnicities would welcome this because its declaration also touches upon national reconciliation, and a genuine federal union. This is what ethnic leaders are demanding. This is the common ground. If NLD government negotiates peace with ethnic groups, I think the peace process will work smoothly, as the two sides have the same policies.
But then, the cooperation of the military plays an important part here. How much is the military willing to cooperate? Because there is an example in which President U Thein Sein has called for the stopping of attacks in Kachin State, but the military didn’t listen and continued its attack. As the consequence, clashes have continued over the past five years in Shan State and Kachin State and are still displacing local people. If these things end and the military cooperate, the peace process will be quite successful in the time of the NLD government.
KZM: The military does play the major role, in particular with regard to internal peace and ceasefire. Yes, it is the question of the willingness of the military for cooperation. The NLD has officially said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself would take the lead role in peace process. Perhaps because the party leader, who can’t become the president, thinks that it is the most important thing and therefore wants to take responsibility. Are ethnic leaders more positive about holding peace talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in comparison with the U Thein Sein government?
Ko Wa: In my view, the election shows that both ethnic armed organizations and ethnic people support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The peace process will have better prospects as non-signatories to the nationwide ceasefire agreement are more likely to participate under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But NLD executive member U Win Htein said that it is not practical to include political parties that did not win the election in the peace process. I accept that the winning parties will take part in peace process as the decision makers, but something like an advisory council should be formed and parties that did not win the election should be included in it, and their views should be sought through meaningful discussion, I believe.
KZM: Speaking of ethnic issues, I found two points particularly interesting, though the NLD’s election manifesto includes six points. The second point is “to tackle the root causes of local armed conflicts and ensure the secure and peaceful living of people through political dialogue, held in the spirit of Panglong and without grudges.” Compared to other political leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is more likely to revive the Panglong spirit which was introduced by her father, Gen. Aung San. She would continue what her father had done, but not yet completed. The fifth is “to ensure the equal sharing of profits from natural resources between regions according to federalism.” If this could really be done, it would please ethnic leaders, I think.
KK: It is one of the major demands of ethnic leaders. Ethnic people did not get profits from resources, both in the time of the current government and former military regime. The current government has failed to take effective action in this area and has only appointed (ethnic affairs) ministers for show. If this could be really done by the NLD government, it would no doubt facilitate national unity.
KZM: Apart from ethnic affairs and the peace process, the NLD said clearly in its third point “to reduce ministries to streamline the administration”. It says that ministries will be reduced to save State’s expenditure and form an efficient and lean government. It does not say exactly how many. But it will do so when it forms the government in March. What is your take on this? How many ministries will it reduce? At present, we have 31 ministries.
KW: I personally think this policy is necessary for the country. This policy meets the needs of the country, but in practice, most of the current ministries have permanent secretaries who have control over the administration of concerned ministries.
KZM: They were appointed recently by the U Thein Sein government.
KW: As permanent secretaries hold entire administrative controls of certain ministries, NLD would need to take due consideration if it is to change this. But, we believe that NLD would be prepared for this.
KZM: It must be changed because there are plenty of ministries. The expenditure of ministers would be a large sum, as there are 31 ministries. As far as I know, even in the US, where the population is nearly 300 million people and the states are vast in area, there are only around 15 ministries. Also in Singapore, there are only 15 or 16 ministries. I think Myanmar would probably need the same—15, 16 or 17. Half of the ministries may be reduced. Some ministries would be merged. There are also ministries that should be abolished. The government, however, needs to choose the right people. As you have said, the ministries should also contribute to national reconciliation. The NLD government might need to strike a balance. So, Ko Wa, what have you learnt from the party’s manifesto regarding its economic policy?
KW: There are many things, but one important thing is that NLD said that it would effectively levy taxes. But the problem is: suppose there are 45,000 companies in our country and only 15,000 them report profit and pay taxes. When concerned departments ask them to report if they are operating or not to Directorate of Investment and Companies Administration, even the big companies like Asia World, Eden Group and Wa Wa Win did not report until the deadline of Oct 16. The point is there will be many obstacles to thoroughly levying taxes. We will need the help of civil servants, and the advice of experts, and we will have to make significant adjustments.
KZM: It might take time to create new job opportunities in this country. But I think NLD would focus on it. There are many Burmese people who have to work in foreign countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Perhaps, NLD government would have a plan to bring those laborers back to Myanmar. Regarding another important topic, farmers, in its manifesto, a point might cause trouble with the officials of the military and current government. It says” “Legal action shall be taken to ensure farmers get back their farms which were taken away from them unlawfully and they will be given compensation.” The declaration puts special focus on farmers. Our country has an agricultural economy and has to rely on agriculture. But then, I think it might cause trouble if NLD immediately addres those land grabs.
KK: Most of the lands were grabbed by the military, government cronies and their companies and therefore if NLD handles this, it would lead to a confrontation with them.
KZM: This would be a challenge.
KW: In my view, we need to get accurate statistics on farmland as ae first step. The NLD’s policy also aims to do this. There are lots of difficulties. But as NLD already has the political will, no matter how big difficulties will be, it will be able to overcome them with the right leadership and the right policies, I hope.
KZM: The NLD’s manifesto touches upon wide-ranging areas including livestock breeding, labor affairs, education, health, teachers, energy, and environmental conservation as well as women and youth affairs, communications, and urban development. Let’s go back to its second point— it says the current constitution will be amended based on the following principle for emergence of a constitution which can guarantee peaceful co-existence of entire national people. It should meet the norms of fundamental human rights, should not be contradictory, provide a federal democratic Union and guarantee ethnic rights and multi-party democracy. There are around six points. Attempts to change the constitution would lead to a confrontation with the military. I think the NLD should not try to change it immediately, as soon as it comes to power.
KW: I share your view, Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe. Taking a look back into recent past, it was the military that mainly opposed constitutional amendments. Optimistically thinking, as the entire national people clearly showed their support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD, the military would take this into serious consideration and probably change itself in the future. I want to be optimistic that there is such a likelihood.
KZM: So, we’ve made a general assessment of the NLD government next year. But I think, most of the people are for the time being concerned over whether talks between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the president and the military chief will be smooth. We will have to wait and see for this.