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INTERVIEW

Thein Nyunt: ‘I’ve Stood Tirelessly by the People’

The leader of the New National Democracy Party criticizes his former NLD compatriots and says he is ready to be a credible voice of opposition in the next parliament.


Thein Nyunt, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) for two decades, was elected to Union Parliament in 2010 for the National Democratic Force (NDF), following an NLD boycott of the poll. The following year, Thein Nyunt and two others split from the NDF, forming the New National Democracy Party (NNDP).

 A lawyer, prolific columnist and political party leader, Thein Nyunt plans to recontest this year’s election Thingangyun Township on behalf of the NNDP against formidable contenders, including renowned democracy activist Nay Phone Latt. He spoke with The Irrawaddy this week about his time in parliament and his hopes of providing a credible voice of opposition to the next government, whichever party wins.

The NNDP said in its televised campaign speech that it would continue to stand as a real opposition party in the next government. What do you mean by ‘real’ opposition party?

No matter which party comes to power this year, the parliamentary opposition has an important responsibility in the way of checks and balances. While there was some opposition in the first parliament, and while it was a positive force in someinstances, it was severely limited and showed little convictionin many others.

For instance, I asked if the 1990 election, the results for which were ignored by the military junta, would be recognized. I was detained for three years for asking to convene the parliament after this election. Still, I demanded to convene the parliament, despite the cost.

I also submitted a proposal to the Union Parliament to form a committee that might address a point of contention, the National Education Law, for student protesters in Letpadan—whom the government suppressed with excessive force. But the proposal was rejected, even though it was an emergency proposal. If it had not been rejected, the crackdown on the protesters probably wouldn’t have happened. At least in part, the finger of blame can be pointed at the parliament because it failed to define student union when I submitted the proposal. (Editor’s note: student activists had called for extensive revisions to the National Education Law, including guarantees allowing the formation of independent student unions.)

Similarly, I put forward a proposal to the lower house to withdraw charges against the Letpadan student protesters, as well as another proposal—three times, all in vain—to take a tougher stance on the sexual assault of children. The so-called opposition was silent about both of these issues.

And when it came to the government’s providing financial support to political parties, I objected to that too. The opposition parties took the money, however, arguing that they needed it.

All of this is to say that the opposition in the first parliament was hardly an opposition. Rather, it was filled with voices that only wanted power. This just won’t do. While a healthy democracy needs ministers and a president, it also needs an opposition that can serve as a channel through which to check and balance other parties and other interests. The NNDP is brave and responsible enough to be this opposition.

You said that your party has stood as part of the opposition in parliament since 2010. What’s it like to be in this position? Do you think it will be possible to continue this stance into the future?

The Constitution that came into play in 2008, which essentially requires military support to make any substantive changes, makes it difficult. What can the opposition do for the people if it isn’t free to act independently of the military? I’ve tried to amend the Constitution at the Union level, and divisional parliament lawmakers from my party have also tried. We’ve done what we can, but to no avail.

We do have plans for after the election, however. Whatever the results, our aim is to establish a combined opposition force that isn’t like the USDP and is fed up with the NLD. Our hope is to build a responsible, combined opposition that would closely monitor the government, no matter the political leanings of the party in power.

Which parties might we expect to make up a combined opposition?

What is key is that the opposition needs to consist of likeminded people. By likeminded people, I mean those people who will help the country to make moves toward national reconciliation. If we are all guided by the goal of promoting democracy, human rights, and national reconciliation, we can work together effectively as a united force. We can discuss how we will put all of this into practice only after we’ve agreed on this fundamental level.

You will be competing in November against Nay Phone Latt, the NLD’s candidate for Thingangyun and a well-known, highly regarded figure. Do you think you can win against him?

I have made many sacrifices for Thingangyun residents over the past five years. Will the people vote for someone simply because he is popular, or will they vote for someone who has been serving the public? We’ll have to wait until Nov. 8 to find out.

It’s widely believed that the current government only won the 2010 election because the outcome was rigged through advance voting. What methods do you think the current government will use to win this time around?

The 2010 and 2015 elections are very different. It is unlikely that there will be unfair advance voting, at least in part because the Union Election Commission (UEC) has invited international organizations to monitor the election, and it won’t want to damage the country’s image by rigging the election again. The Rangoon Division chief minister has even told USDP members that not only should they not break the law, but that they also shouldn’t tolerate anyone who tries to break the law.

Why should the people of Thingangyun vote for you and your party?

I’ve stood tirelessly by the people over the past five years. My office handles the problems of people from all walks of life. For instance, we have worked to pave or repair about 90 percent of the streets and to bring 65 transformers and a 24-hour water supply to Thingangyun Township. What’s more, we handle all grievances personally. We work with and for the people, and we’re certainly ready to face competitors who are only made of big political rhetoric.

Which parties will be your toughest rivals?

I try to view any party contesting the election as an equal. I don’t like candidates who look down on their competitors, bar able people and only want to get power for themselves, saying things like, “don’t look at the name of the candidate, look at the party flag.” (Editor’s note: Thein Nyunt is referring to comments made on the campaign trail by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.) I won’t say not to vote for an independent candidate who’s contesting the election in line with the Constitution. To do so—only to get power—would be irresponsible. In Thingangyun, I view all independent candidates, and all political parties, as my rivals.