On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, the second and final part of our interview with Tin Aye, chairman of the Union Election Commission, who discusses earlier comments about the likelihood of a military coup after this year’s elections, the parallels with the situation in 1990, and his lingering attachment to the Union Solidarity and Development Party. The first part of this interview is available here.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to our weekly Dateline Irrawaddy program. In this week’s edition, we will continue our discussion with U Tin Aye chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEC). We will ask if he intended to be threatening or had other intentions by saying that the military may seize power, what measures he has taken to guarantee the transfer of power to the opposition party if it wins the coming election, and if he wants his former party to win the election after admitting he still has an attachment to the party. I am Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.
Mr Chairman, as everyone knows you have been criticized for your military background. But then, I am more interested in and inclined to pay more attention to what you say and do as the chairman of the UEC. Last year, you said that the military may seize power if there was instability in the country. Perhaps, you said it because you were worried. But then, at the same time, some viewed it as a threat.
Tin Aye: Yes, they did.
KZM: So, as the chairman of the UEC, don’t you think words that reflect military could damage the credibility of the chairman of the UEC?
TA: Every man has his own agenda. As you said, what I said is viewed as a threat and I am looked down upon [because of my military background]. I don’t blame those who criticize me. I did not mean to threaten; I said so because I do not wish it to happen. I joined the military in 1963 and passed the time under the socialism of the Revolutionary Council, and then the State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council, and the country has lagged behind in its development.
The country has practiced self-imposed isolation since the socialist period. There are five strengths [according to Myanmar customs] and one of the strengths is having friends. You know that Bangladesh, Laos, and Cambodia were lagged behind us [in the past]. But now, they are developed. How have they become developed? With the help of grants, aid and loans. I am full of bitter experiences in my mind and in my heart. This makes me afraid that the military might need to seize power again. The military intervenes when there is disorder and instability. It needs not to intervene when the country is stable and peaceful.
The military seizes power because the country is in chaos. It never seizes power when the country is peaceful. You may point out the 1962 coup. That was because of the weakness of 1947 constitution. The military seized power, giving the excuse that [ethnic regions] could cede from the country [according to constitution]. History will decide whether their reasons were right or wrong. If there is a certain weak point, for example in the constitution or if the country is unstable, the military may seize power for fear that the Union may break up. The military may seize power when there is instability, like if the country is in chaos or a state of anarchy and faced with rampant killings, or foreign fleets enter Myanmar’s territorial waters.
But then, the country has suffered a lot from coups. There were sanctions. The country lagged behind in all aspects. It lagged behind very seriously. People say it is all because the military staged the coup. Because of the coup. Because of the coup. Because of the coup. Because of the coup. Yes, they are right, it is a consequence of the coup. Why wasn’t action taken to make sure the military did not stage a coup?
I did not mean to threaten. Based on my 47 years of experience [in the military], the military did not seize power because it wanted to, but because there was instability. I have said this time and again. We were blamed for 1988 coup. There was no rule of law, there were cases of beheadings, the administrative mechanisms had fallen apart, and there were fights at border posts that time and the US naval fleets [entered Myanmar’s territorial waters]. Under such circumstances, what would have happened had the military not seized power and just stood by?
Think about it. Should the military be blamed? Even if you don’t blame the military, foreign countries may blame it. The international community does not like it. I know that. It was not that the military seized power because it wanted to, but because it was inevitable. But then, as a result, the country suffered.
KZM: People suffered the brunt of it.
TA: People suffered. That’s why I say [don’t try to create instability] because I do not want to go through this experience again.
KZM: Apart from the instability factor, in a recent interview, you said that if an opposition party won in the coming election, power may not be transferred to it or it may eventually lead to a coup.
TA: If that’s what you thought, you misunderstood. I said power must be transferred, it is a must. It must be transferred.
KZM: It was reported as such. But anyway, is there the potential for a coup? Because we see now that the military, government and election commission are working in harmony. I think the military must have given a guarantee.
TA: As the military has provided a guarantee, so has the government, I think. This is my personal view. I don’t know if they are craftily playing tricks. But then, I believe we are on the same boat. If they do so, there will be a big impact and the country will be in trouble. I dare to persuade them and I would urge them [to not stage a coup] and to listen to my decision. What I want is—today, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the ruling party and it must be the best opposition party if it lost the election.
KZM: Critics would point to the 1990 elections [whose results were nullified by the then government]—
TA: No. No. I want to deny that comparison. I want to deny it. The national convention was convened for 1992, 1993. The National League for Democracy (NLD) should have acted shrewdly and attended the convention and gone along with the constitution no matter what was written in it. In fact, the constitution was the step for the transfer of power. If the government at the time said the election would be held only after the constitution is drafted, so it should have been. The NLD could have contested again. No other party would have been able to win that election. If they said they would change the constitution again after it won that election, no one would have been able to stop it. It was not clever.
KZM: So, the party that won in 1990 was not shrewd?
TA: That’s right. That is how I assess it. You can blame the government of the time if it did not transfer power while the constitution was in place. But, don’t blame them if there was no constitution. The government was to transfer power after the constitution was drafted. [Aung San Suu Kyi] was arrested. The previous government met and held talks with her, and released and chaperoned her around the country [to view development projects] as a VIP. We had to discuss with her a lot of things and finally decided we could do no more and left it. We drafted the constitution and released her just after the emergence of the constitution. This is how we passed those days. These are my views. The other side may have their own views. I have no comment about their views. In my view, the previous government had reasons for the things it did in those days.
KZM: What legal action will the UEC take under the election law against electoral campaigning or encouraging people to vote for a particular party? Recently, some religious organizations spoke indirectly of doing so.
TA: That case is very delicate. I don’t want to talk about it. It is a complicated issue. I asked them not to do it. They can do it according to the law. They can’t do what the law does not allow. But if they do and complaint is sent against them, I will check if it is against the law. I will take action if it is against the law. But then, it is best if they don’t.
KZM: I hear that you will retire when your current term expires. Is that true? If you will retire, what legacy would you like to leave for the commission? The difference between the 1990 election commission and your commission is that the former was made of personalities like U Ba Htay, Saya Che, and U Saw Kyar Doe, while ex-military officials are the current incarnation. What legacy would you like to leave for your country [through the election commission]?
TA: I will surely retire. I very much cherish my job. This is a very good job for the country. I think a courageous man who dares to speak out is needed for this position. I would like to take the lead role. If I can’t, I would like to be a follower. I don’t like armchair critics at all. I am different from others. Highlighting too many follies is harming oneself. If those who criticize me said they could replace me, I would quit. I am that fed up. But then, groups that are working in cooperation with me say that I can’t quit.
I will quit when my term expires after the election. But I don’t say this because I want to postpone my retirement, I have to take care of the election results and report to the parliament. And, I want to amend some laws. Some people, when they come to parliament, ask me if I don’t want to amend any law as laws are being amended now. And I said no. A law should be exercised for a term so that it can be assessed and I will introduce changes to it for the next term. So, I will hand over my amendments when I retire. I will retire from UEC chairmanship after I transfer the duty.
As to your question of what legacy I would like to leave, I want to talk about the essence of elections. Elections are crucially important. They need to turn out outstanding and virtuous people. It is important that outstanding and virtuous people get into the parliament and serve the country. I will discuss this with people so that they understand its importance. Secondly, political parties are very important. They have to constantly improve their capacity. They have to serve the country when they come into power. The opposition party should not disturb but cooperate. I want to instill this concept. I want my commission to be a strong, firm institution. This is my wish. I don’t know how much it can be achieved, but I am working toward that end.
KZM: Are you ready to take any bigger role assigned by the government or have you thought of re-engaging with politics after you retire?
TA: I won’t unless the situation requires. I would not leave irresponsibly, but anyway I would retire. Bogyoke Aung San said that he would stand by and laugh at his comrades’ arguments after the country gained its independence. I would not laugh, but I would stand by and watch. I will copy Bogyoke Aung San’s words because I like them. After the coming election, I will stand by and watch. But then, I may have to take a part if the situation requires. Unless the situation requires, I would not take any role.
KZM: My final question is, you were a member of the USDP and elected to the parliament to represent it before you became the chairman. Do you wish for the USDP to win in the coming election?
TA: As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to the party. It would not be wise. I have and attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind. The decision of the people is most important. Anyway, attachment is the origin of a patriotic spirit. If you say you don’t love your organization, I would say you don’t have patriotic spirit. I am speaking the truth. I love it. I love the country. I love my organization. I love the military. I am willing to sacrifice my life for them.
I love my organization. But I don’t accept wrongdoing. I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating. As a chairman, I would say that you should never ever think I would help you to win. You ask me if I want it to win, it will win if it deserves it. What can we do? But I will make sure they do not win by cheating. I have said again and again that it is better to lose fairly than to win by cheating. I don’t want that at all. I have an attachment to the party. They are my friends, my colleagues who I have known for 20 or 30 years. They are my close friends. I love them. I am willing to help them anytime for personal matters. But if they ask me help them to win the election, I would say ‘sorry.’