On this week’s edition of Dateline, Irrawaddy editor Kyaw Zwa Moe, Tanpadipa Institute director Dr Khin Zaw Win, and Institute for Peace and Social Justice director Dr Thaung Tun discuss the downfall of Shwe Mann and internal discontent within the National League for Democracy ahead of the November general election.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. Thura U Shwe Mann, formerly the chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was recently ousted from his post. This week, we’ll be discussing how the internal ructions in the ruling USDP will impact upon the political landscape of the country. Dr Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tanpadipa Institute, and Dr Thaung Tun, director of the Institute for Peace and Social Justice, will join me for the discussion. I am Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.
Firstly, Dr Thaung Tun. U Shwe Mann held the most senior post in the ruling party and was ranked third in the previous military regime. He was removed by a faction opposed to him. What immediate political impact it will have as a result, given the election is drawing near and U Shwe Mann is deemed to have close ties with National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? What do you think will happen?
Thaung Tun: With regard to the recent happenings within the USDP, usually political parties experience internal rivalries when the election is near. Political parties may either use democratic practice or force to resolve internal rivalry. According to the majority of observers, some force was used [in this case]. From 2012 to 2015, there were lively debates on reforms in Burma within the parliament—at least there were lively debates on charter amendment, though they failed. The parliament did not become a rubber stamp parliament as we had expected before 2010 election. Today, as we see the changes within the USDP, and signs that some of its members have have stalled and some are reversing the reform process, there has risen a question about how the reform process will continue after 2015. So now, the result of the 2015 election, which will determine the representation of political parties in the next parliament, has become very important.
KZM: What about you, Dr Khin Zaw Win? As we have said, U Shwe Mann had close ties with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They have held joint press conferences. We also heard that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed her concern about the things done by U Thein Sein. How much will the purge of Shwe Mann impact upon political parties, especially the NLD?
Khin Zaw Win: These events raised this question and are a cause for concern. Over the past couple of years, it seemed that the two parties could even forge an alliance. To put it into the US’s words, Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were considered a dream ticket, which would please everyone. But now, this has fallen apart. As far as everyone knows, the USDP and the military do not like U Shwe Mann because he is too close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This would have a role. U Shwe Mann was removed by force. So, this raises the question if the USDP would make a similar move against other parties and leaders. We need great caution here. If [NLD] were to forge an alliance [with U Shwe Mann], it would be good if it turned out to be successful, but they need to consider what to do if such an alliance turns out to be a failure. What will U Shwe Mann do in the immediate future? Although he had to step down from the chairmanship, he still has strength. Will the NLD and other parties use his influence? We have to wait and see.
KZM: What will U Shwe Mann do? In the past, U Shwe Mann was a military leader and was the third highest member of the military regime; he therefore knows how similar cases have been handled. The regime took decisive action in the case of U Khin Nyunt in 2004. Will similar action be taken against him or perhaps worse?
KZW: People have speculated that [the military and USDP] would knock him out. If truth were told, there has been a tradition [of eliminating the potential rivals] in the military. But then, given this political era and that U Shwe Mann is the parliamentary speaker, he will be able to continue engaging in politics if they give him mercy. He is still allowed to contest in Pyu Constituency from USDP. He is now in a transitional period. We will have to wait and see if his case will end in the way of military tradition, or if he will be allowed to continue in politics.
KZM: It seems that the military and the executive arm of the government are very close and have acted hand in glove in this case. In the past, executive power was the responsibility of the military regime and now it is the civilian government. How much difference do you see in their nature? Is it just a semantic change? Is it nominal? What do you think are the similarities in behavior?
TT: We found that the military and the government speak almost with the same voice, with regard to their positions. As a result, there were frictions with the parliament. The USDP’s senior lawmakers, including the former USDP chairman, who paved the way for debate on constitutional amendments, were accused of disloyalty. At the sight of these things, I feel seriously concerned for my country. After U Thein Sein government came into power in 2010, I talked with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and discussed the political parties registration law. Mainly we discussed changing the phrase ‘we will uphold the constitution’ to ‘we will respect the constitution’ in the law. The political parties registration law was changed based on the principle that it is not that the Constitution can never be changed, but it can be changed when needed.
Then, the NLD joined parliamentary politics. The proposal to change the Constitution was put forward by the USDP. Taking at look at those proposals, they are very modest. From the point of view of democratic forces, those proposals are unsatisfactory. Those proposals are too modest. But then, the proposals were totally shut down. So, there is a cause for concern. Constitutional amendments are the key to internal peace, national unity, political stability, and political, social and economic development of our country. I am not calling for changing 100 percent of the constitution, but there must be a process, the door must be opened. Only then will people and the country’s ethnic minorities have trust in the government.
KZM: Speaking of opening of the door, there are many problems in Burma—ethnic issues, peace, constitutional shortcomings and many social problems. So, ethnic leaders, political leaders, military leaders and government leaders need to hold a dialogue. There was no such dialogue in the past five years. So, is the door still closed by the other side? There were certain ties between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Shwe Mann. Do you see any potential of a similar meeting between [Suu Kyi], President U Thein Sein and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing?
TT: I haven’t seen any potential so far. For example, we heard some criticism that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sought the wrong ally in U Shwe Mann. In fact, what we care about are dialogue partners. The challenges facing Burma must be addressed through dialogue. Here, U Shwe Mann is not the only potential dialogue partner [for Suu Kyi]. Dialogue can also be held with either U Thein Sein or Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
There were proposals for four-party and six-party talks. But, time elapsed and those talks did not happen. Even if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became president and the NLD won a landslide in post-election period as people had wished, the NLD alone and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alone won’t be able to address the challenges facing Burma. It is imperative that key stakeholders engage in dialogue on the subject of national reconciliation. Given that the door to dialogue was shut in the past one or two years, there will be a cause for serious concern after 2015. If the doors continue to stay shut and economic sanctions still exist—we are facing economic crisis today, the value of the dollar has increased and the value of the kyat has declined and imports have declined, economic reforms and efforts to eradicate poverty are failing and it will be difficult to overcome the consequences and damage from the recent floods. I am particularly concerned that tensions will surface, not only because of political reasons, but also because of economic and social reasons.
KZM: Dr Khin Zaw Win, as Dr Thaung Tun has said, there are several potential dialogue partners, such as U Thein Sein. And there has been criticism that she got too close with U Shwe Mann and he was the wrong ally to pursue. Now, it is merely months away from the election and I think to what extent the election will be fair has now become a much more pressing question. Which policy should Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party adopt? Recently, there was a controversy over its selection of candidates. The NLD was criticized for leaving out figures such as Dr Nyo Nyo Thin and U Ko Ko Gyi from the 88 Generation. Which policy and approach should the NLD take for the coming election?
KZW: Before I answer that, I want to agree with what Dr Thaung Tun has said. Speaking of the NLD, both local and international supporters have given NLD good advice in all respects and in good faith for a long time. It seems that all this advice has been in vain. Now, the election is months away. There have been lots of complications. The NLD needs to create an environment in which all can participate with inclusiveness. Even if they don’t want to participate, the NLD has to invite them. The 88 Generation has proposed to join the NLD, but sadly, the merger did not happen. The NLD needs to reform itself. And it must be urged to reform. Not only the personalities within the NLD, but also outsiders need to urge for reform. Another question is how much the NLD will achieve after the election. If it wins the election, it would be the part of the government and has to prepare to create policies and govern. As it will need to form alliances and coalitions with other parties, it will need to change its outlook and perspectives. The NLD needs to do it urgently. And all need to urge the NLD to do so.
KZM: You mean the NLD and other parties need to be united. Dr Thaung Tun, Dr Khin Zaw Win, thank you for your contributions.