On this week’s edition of Dateline, The Irrawaddy’s Thalun Zaung Htet is joined by political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and Rangoon Division lawmaker Dr Nyo Nyo Thin to discuss their predictions for the general election, likely presidential candidates and whether the military will hand over power in the event of a landslide opposition victory.
Thalun Zaung Htet: Welcome to this week’s edition of The Irrawaddy’s Dateline program. This week we’ll be discussing the tightly contested race for the presidency and what the future of the country will look like in the post-election period. Political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and Rangoon Division lawmaker Dr Nyo Nyo Thin will join me for the discussion. I am The Irrawaddy’s Thalun Zaung Htet.
The competition for presidency has heightened after the Union Election Commission (UEC) set the election date for Nov. 8, and we have begun to see tensions within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). On July 13, President Thein Sein sent a letter to [Union Parliament Speaker] Shwe Mann announcing that he would not contest the coming election and would let someone else contest in his constituency. But then the director of the President’s Office, Zaw Htay, announced that the letter and the news was fake, and that the president would himself decide if he would contest the election and announce his decision shortly. What does this indicate, Dr Yan Myo Thein?
Yan Myo Thein: My view is that the announcement of the election date does not concern this matter. Disagreements have emerged both within the USDP and the National League for Democracy (NLD) over the presidency after it was settled that Article 59 would not be amended and Aung San Suu Kyi would not be permitted to run for the presidency. But I don’t think the increased competition for the presidency has caused tensions within the USDP. I don’t think there are different views within the ruling party. In my view, they are playing two teams, for example—one team led by the parliamentary speaker and the other team by the president. It is a political strategy deployed by these two teams to prevent other parties taking the presidency after 2015, I believe.
TZH: USDP central executive committee member Aung Ko said President Thein Sein has not been included in the candidate list for his party. He said Thein Sein would no longer engage in party politics but instead focus on national politics. What is your view, Dr Nyo Nyo Thin?
Nyo Nyo Thin: I personally feel that the president wants to steer himself clear of party politics and only focus on national politics, because he has become rather fed up with his party. Here, I have a different view than Dr Yan Myo Thein. They have increasingly competed for reasons of their own interests. Looking back over the past five years, it is true that there have been confrontations between the parliament and the president’s office. The president’s office never gives due consideration to proposals of the parliament—so, the existing competition between the parliament and the president started five years ago, not now. It is not that they are pretending to fight. They are really disputing for their own interests. So, this gives us, the opposition forces, an opportunity to take advantage. And we should take advantage of it.
TZH: Karenni State chief minister and state USDP chairman Khin Maung Oo, along with four other ministers, resigned from their party earlier this month. Two Union ministers, Aung Min and Soe Thein, then proposed to the USDP central executive committee that they contest in Karenni State constituencies. But the committee ruled that they should not contest there. There must be a certain connection between these two cases: the Karenni State chief minister resigning and Aung Min and Soe Thein being barred from contesting. Then, President Thein Sein visited Karenni State. Under such circumstances, don’t you think the rifts in the USDP are real, Dr Yan Myo Thein?
YMT: In my view, Karenni State is different from other states. Generally, local ethnic parties there are relatively weaker than ethnic parties in other states. As far I remember, five townships in Karenni State got two seats each in the Upper House [in the 2010 election]. In some townships, there are only 4,000 or so eligible voters. So, 2,000 voters will cast votes for a seat and a candidate can win a seat [in the Union Upper House] if he wins 1,000 votes. From a political point of view, those places are like an oasis. Every top leader from the USDP wants to contest the election there. To answer your question, my understanding is that the central executive committee of the USDP will determine the candidates. According to what I’ve heard, maybe Aung Min and Soe Thein have attempted to contest the election there. However, the final list of candidates will be determined by the central executive committee of the party. Again, I don’t think the resignation of the Karenni state chief minister and four ministers is the result of competition within the party. But it is related to the responsibility and accountability of the state government over local economy or a development project, I think. But then, the party may mix up these two things and pretend as if it were a factional struggle within the USDP.
TZH: President Uhein Sein said he is not sure whether or not he will contest the election. What do you think, Dr Nyo Nyo Thin?
NNT: I felt that he would not run for election. But then, there is a group of strongmen close to him. That group wants the president to run for a second term, and I think it will be hard for the president to resist that group. Therefore, it is likely that he may contest the election in some way or other. An excuse will be created to justify the president’s re-election. The president may re-enter this political circle, under the pretext of people demonstrating in favor of his presidency and demanding his re-election, I think.
TZH: Whether or not President Thein Sein runs for election, some political commentators believe that he can win the presidency as a vice-president nominated by military lawmakers.
YMT: It is not likely that President Thein Sein will run for the coming election, I think. Though he can be nominated as a vice-president by military lawmakers, it is not easy for him to get the top job with the support of that 25 percent [of military lawmakers] alone. It would not be appropriate for the president of this term to serve as a vice-president in the next government. So, in my view, they are plotting a strategy to create a political confusion amid speculation that Thein Sein will not run for election and then military lawmakers can still choose a non-elected person for presidency.
TZH: Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann has also announced his ambition for presidency. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has hinted that he would like to assume the presidency if it is in line with law. And President Thein Sein said that he would like to run for second term if the people wish for it. So, there are at least three contenders for the one position. Dr Nyo Nyo Thin, who do you think will win the presidency? Who has the highest potential?
NNT: President U Thein Sein is in a position to make good use of the peace process. He can take the strength of ethnic peoples and the military and therefore he has the highest potential to become president, I think.
TZH: There has been ongoing speculation that former Snr-Gen Than Shwe has been pulling the strings throughout this entire political process.
YMT: It is rather difficult to get information about the role of former Snr-Gen Than Shwe in current political landscape. In my view, drawing conclusions from the words of the president and the commander-in-chief so far, it is clear that they consult with him as their mentor in times of need. So, the role of former Snr-Gen Than Shwe will continue in politics—especially in politics. Taking a look into what it will be like in the post-election period, there will be two parts. Who will be the president if the NLD wins a landslide in coming election? If the military and USDP had to choose the president together, the nominee might need to be supported by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, I think. If NLD won a landslide, I would like to suggest they put forward an ethnic politician for presidency.
TZH: As the election is drawing near, we have a clearer picture of the political landscape and the frictions between them have become clearer. Some political commentators are concerned that election will not be held or will be postponed. The poll date has been announced. But there is a concern that it will be put off. There are also doubts that power will be transferred after 2015 election.
NNT: In that regard, it depends on whether NLD can achieve victory. If NLD won a landslide, the six-party talks will probably resume. If that happens, I believe we will be able to craft the best future for our country, making good use of the six-party talks. Even if the NLD won in a landslide, it won’t cease its efforts towards reconciliation. It is unlikely that the military would seize power in the case of a landslide victory by the NLD, as some people have suggested, because the NLD won’t abandon its reconciliation policy. It is practically impossible for NLD to remove the 25 percent of military lawmakers. This is not included in its policy platform, as far as I know. So, the future of our country depends on the results of the coming election. It is very unlikely that the military would not transfer power if NLD won a landslide as expected.
TZH: Thank you both for your discussion today.