With Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), expected to perform strongly in the November national election, much intrigue surrounds who the party will back as a presidential candidate. Following recent comments by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who is constitutionally barred from assuming the presidency—that the NLD planned to field a presidential candidate from within the party, speculation partly centered on 89-year-old NLD patron Tin Oo. The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw spoke to Tin Oo about his views on the presidency, the present state of the NLD and on the role of the army of which he was a former commander-in-chief.
Aung San Suu Kyi recently announced that the National League for Democracy (NLD) intended to field a presidential candidate. She herself is barred from the presidency under Article 59(f) of the Constitution. You are being tipped as a possible candidate, could you comment?
I am not running [for president]. I heard that I am now widely tipped to become a presidential candidate. I respect the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and I joined the NLD to help her achieve her objectives with my expertise and experience. That’s all.
My intention remains the same now. I neither want to select nor be selected. I have never dreamt of contesting [for the presidency]. I was under house arrest when the 1988 multi-party democracy election law was enacted and I was asked if I would contest the election. In fact, I did not want to contest. But if I said no, the party [members] would have felt depressed as both the leaders—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and I—were under house arrest at that time.
But I knew that if I said I would contest, I would be put behind bars immediately. I made up my mind and said I would contest the election so that our party would not feel disheartened. Just after I announced this, I was taken early in the morning [the following day] and imprisoned.
But the situation has changed now…
Yes, the situation has now changed. I have seen many ups and downs and faced various situations in my life. There is a saying that a kite carrying a piece of flesh comes under attack. The attack only ends when the kite lets the flesh fall. I have experienced lots of things and there is nothing I can’t let go.
I want to work peacefully for my country as much as I can. I always intended to help someone who would develop the country…. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San… has charisma. She has taken bold steps and risked her life and because of her actions, I am committed to helping her achieve her aims.
I don’t want to see a single faction within the party, never. From the very start, I have only intended to help [Aung San Suu Kyi] to achieve her [objectives]. Now, I am widely tipped to become a presidential candidate. But I will never do that.
You may not want to do that, but what if Aung San Suu Kyi and the party asked you?
No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even if I was asked… I am 89 now. A person who is around 90 is deteriorating either physically or mentally. It is not easy [to serve as president]. So, I should not do it. This is the present situation. But then, I have never wanted to be president.
This job draws attacks. It was the same in the past. Youths and students shouted: “Down with Ne Win and San Yu” and “May Sein Win and Tin Oo: be successful.” Since that time, I was at risk. I can’t get out of this [political] sphere. I have committed to helping the NLD achieve success. There has never been instability within the party because of me. Everything is fine. And I want it to stay that way so that I can help them all with a clear conscience.
What is your view on Aung San Suu Kyi and the state of the NLD today?
The NLD has now shifted from a centralized system to a democratic one. But we have not yet totally shifted to it because of circumstances. We have to try to help our party thrive. We are old now and plan to relinquish our power to youths. The NLD has formed a central committee to ensure an electoral victory and youths are assigned duties.
Win Htein has also been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.
U Win Htein is not in good health. He is not even as strong as me. So we can’t [assume the presidency].
As a former commander-in-chief, what is your attitude toward the existing army now? What do you want to say about the military taking a lead role in politics?
In fact, the military is sine qua non for any country. But the military must serve the interests of the people. Now, the [Burmese] military is seeking [to protect] its own interests [rather] than the interests of people. This must be addressed.
U Ne Win could have laid a good foundation for the military at the beginning. But then, he changed later as his ego grew. U Ne Win himself took an oath to safeguard the 1948 constitution. All the commanders did so at the commanders’ conference. U Ne Win said he would take harsh actions against those who violate the constitution. But then, he himself was the first to violate it.
Each country [considers] the military in [formulating] policy. Our country holds a very strategic position and is sandwiched between two big countries. Our country is rich in resources, though they have been used up now.
Such a country is at risk. And therefore, there must be a military strategy suitable to our country.
First, we need to maintain friendly relations with neighbors. We would not invade them and would not let them invade our country. But in case they invade our country, the entire national people will defend the motherland with the military taking the lead role.
It is wrong to say that only they [the military] will save or are capable of saving the country. For a soldier to be able to fight in a war, people have to support him from behind for everything he needs. Therefore, if we are to defend our country, we can only defend with the masses, only with the strength and the unity of the people.