Widely known as Sakura U Htay Aung, based on businesses he has established including the Sakura Trade Centre, the businessman is contesting a Lower House seat in South Dagon Myothit Township, in Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon.
A current member of Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC)—he was elected in 2014—Htay Aung was born in a village in Irrawaddy Division. He set up his own business at the age of 23 and made it big by partnering with Japanese counterparts, with offices in Singapore and Japan.
Once considered a kingpin of the automobile industry, he spoke to Myanmar Now senior journalist Htet Khaung Linn about his reasons for running in the upcoming elections and his political aspirations.
Why did you decide to run in the general elections?
As a YCDC district representative, I can work for a particular area in Yangon. I want to propose laws and economic policies in the parliament for the benefit of the general public. There has been talk of poverty alleviation, but has that actually had any impact on the poor? If not, why not? I want to point that out. There have also been instances of where some of our suggestions for policies were presented by relevant government officials as if the ideas were their own. The only way for me to propose my own ideas and talk in the parliament is if I get elected. I am not a soldier, but I can work for the development of the country. The needs are great.
You’re a successful businessman. Why are you running run as an independent candidate instead of with one of the big political parties?
I believe I can be a leader. Also, in many political parties, once you’ve become a member, you have to listen to what the leader says. In many democratic countries, the president, despite his position, still collaborates with others in the administration. It’s not about listening only to him and doing what he says. That’s not the situation in Myanmar. In political parties, the leader seems to have absolute authority. That’s why I didn’t join any political party.
What’s your view on Aung San Suu Kyi?
She is a brilliant politician and public figure. But she is quite different from her late father Bogyoke Aung San. He went down to the grassroots, worked with people across the country, and saw them as people with things to teach him. He did not treat people like his subordinates. With the NLD, and I know very well that some of their central executive committee members dare not criticize Aung San Suu Kyi, but they just obey all her instructions. That’s not the right way. You should be able to criticize and point out the truth.
What is your view on the ruling party and President Thein Sein?
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) also has centrist members who are broad-minded. Although members of the party are former military personnel, there are respectable people as well as those who are only after their own gain.
You are a high-profile businessman. It could also be said that you have good relationship with the government, but not too close. Could you be considered a crony?
As a businessman, I can work with any government that is in power as long as the projects are open and transparent. I am not interested in favoritism. During the military regime, automobile imports were temporarily suspended. Only the military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) could import them. In the era of Union Solidarity and Development Association (editor’s note: this is the predecessor of the current government) a company called ‘Myan Hone Myint’ imported cars and some officials received cars via a quota system. I was not involved in any of them. When there were some changes among officials in 2006, there were open tenders and I got involved. I competed against more than 30 companies for import permits. As my company has an office in Japan, I know very well this market and I won the tender but I wasn’t given the full permit. The (officials) bargained with me to share my import permit with some business people close to them. I agreed. But they could not import all of their quota as they were unable to purchase the cars at a price I was able to get because of my connections and experience. I’m not scared of anyone. I know these people but I did not take privileges from authorities despite dealing with them. There are many military officers who are good. I know of generals who still don’t have their own house. That’s all I want to say.
The ruling party and NLD are very strong. Do independents have a chance?
I consider the upcoming election as a battle. I am well prepared and have confidence. I also believe in voters. I need to prove to them that I am worthy to be a representative. It is not enough just to shout in loudspeakers and hang posters. Although Myanmar people hope for the ‘change’, about 75 percent of the population is not interested in elections. They are not likely to study the capability and the policies of candidates before they go to the poll station. Most of them choose the candidates based on others people’s suggestions.
Some 300 independent candidates will contest the upcoming elections. Are you all working together or do you have plans to do so?
I hope so, but we are not yet in the parliament. We contact each other through social networks and other channels at the moment. We have the same objectives, which is to work for the welfare of future generations, instead of our own interests. For example, I started working in Japan when I was 23. Since then I do half a year in Japan, and half a year in Myanmar. All the processes in Japan are smooth and easy for both their citizens and foreigners such as myself. It’s the same in Singapore. I have offices in Japan and Singapore. I pay tax in these countries. I cannot evade them. However, tax evasion is a common practice in Myanmar. Taxation authorities will increase tax from regular taxpayers every year. They will not accept that there is profit and loss in business and that you had a profit last year but a loss this year. Let’s say you pay 100 kyats in tax last year. This year they will ask 150. I have been a taxpayer for more than 30 years in Myanmar. There are many tycoons who are doing business in gems, diamond and real estate whose taxes the authorities have not been able to collect. I don’t like that. That’s not a good system. And yet I have no chance to make an effective complaint on these issues.
Regardless of who comes into power, unless they can ensure decent pay and benefits for civil service staff, you will have issues of corruption. Of course you can’t change overnight after 50 years of undermining people’s integrity. I am not blaming the people because it’s their livelihoods, their anger and greed.
If you win, what would your plan be for amending the constitution and peace negotiations and how would you work with the winning party?
It depends on whether the party that wins the elections includes me in their administration. If they want to use me, I am ready to give ideas and suggestions. We need to talk about ethnic people and the federal majority system. Some ethnic armed groups stage civil wars in remote areas and extort money for their own interests, despite saying they are fighting for their rights. Some of the ethnic leaders are very wealthy and can send their offspring to schools in the United States, while grassroots ethnic people are suffering.
Do you think the 2008 constitution should be changed?
Like many people are saying, there are a lot of things that should be amended. There are also a lot of laws that are no longer appropriate for this day and age. But amending these should not just be for the benefit of one group of people. Lawmaking is not just for a single group. So it’s important that there is a true federal system that would benefit all ethnic people in Myanmar.
What do you think of the allocation of 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military representatives?
Military representatives can also be seen in parliaments of other countries where, like us, there is civil conflict. Based on the current situation we cannot really discard them. It is wise to accept them in the parliament up to a certain period.
How long is “a certain period”?
We need to agree on a peace deal first, and then work on a plan for them to take a backseat. But it can’t be immediately after the ceasefire agreement was made.
How about Article 436, which requires any charter amendment to have the support of more than 75 percent of representatives in the parliament?
The amendment of Article 436 is decided by votes. It is important to change that clause because only then can you change other clauses. To do that would require the support of military personnel. That’s why you have to do it step by step. They may not accept a complete removal of their 25 percent quota.
What kind of vice-president would you elect in the parliament?
A: It is difficult to estimate which party will win majority vote in the upcoming elections. A political party would need to win at least 73 percent of votes in the Lower House to be able to vote for their choice of president. Will it be the NLD or USDP? This can only be considered after election results are out.
Under this Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be elected as President. But she can become one of the two vice-presidents if there is a consensus in the parliament. Whatever the constitution stipulates, maybe she can become the president if more than 75 percent of parliamentarians elected her to be president and everyone asks her to become president?
If it is a coalition government, I think she would be elected as the president. But not if her party wins by a landslide. People love Aung San Suu Kyi and want her party to win, but the history our country has been of dictators and political assassinations.
Power is addictive. A leader should be able to weather the riches. Not everyone who was imprisoned suffered and you don’t have to be jailed to become a politician.
This interview originally appeared at Myanmar Now.