Election 2020

“We Never Had Bamar-Dominated Thinking”: NLD Vice-Chair

By Htet Naing Zaw 18 November 2020

The National League for Democracy (NLD) repeated its 2015 electoral victory this month, winning more than enough seats to form a government.

NLD vice-chairman and spokesman Dr. Zaw Myint Maung held an online press conference after the results were announced. Here is what he told The Irrawaddy.

After the 2015 general election, when the NLD appointed chief ministers in regions and states, your party appointed party members. Will the party consider appointing chief ministers from ethnic parties in ethnic-majority states?

It is a good question. You all know who submitted the proposal in Parliament to amend Article 261. [Note: Article 261 of the Constitution grants the president the power to appoint state and regional chief ministers. In 2019, the military-allied Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won a majority in Shan State’s parliament in 2015, pushed for a change in the article that would have enabled it to elect the Shan chief minister. Under the Constitution, in state and regional parliaments, the military has the right to appoint a number of lawmakers equal to one third of the total number of elected lawmakers. In certain state and regional parliaments with few members, the USDP’s proposed amendment would have made it much easier for the military and its allies to elect the chief minister, so the NLD rejected the amendment proposal.]

Suppose we have Article 261 amended for ethnic parties, but considering 25 percent of seats are held by the military, you can imagine who will really appoint chief ministers. We can run into trouble. That’s why we the NLD rejected moves in the Union Parliament to amend Article 261. [Note: Article 261 of the Constitution only deals with the appointment of chief ministers. According to Article 161[d], the number of military appointees in state/regional parliaments is one-third of the total number of MP-elects—the formula is different from the 25 percent of seats reserved for the military in the Union Parliament.]

But it might change in the future. When the time is ripe for us to establish a democratic, federal union, we have no reason at all to reject self-determination and self-administration.

We must be aware of one thing: people of different ethnicity are spread across all states and regions. There is no state in which only one ethnicity resides. We have to discuss the best possible solution. We still do not have a specific decision and it is bound to be a hot issue in the party’s central executive committee [CEC].

There is a perception— including among some foreign news agencies — that NLD leaders are Bamar-dominated in their thinking and fail to see things from the perspectives of ethnic minorities. What plans does the party have to win greater trust among minorities?

We still prioritize national reconciliation. There is no Bamar-dominance. The CEC represents various ethnic groups. We formed an ethnic affairs committee proportionately with ethnic members. We need to win the trust of ethnic minorities. We have never had Bamar-dominated thinking. From the beginning, we have said talks involving ethnic people must be held for the government to function properly.

Have you noticed if any party has called for the release of the three NLD candidates [abducted by the Arakan Army]? Of course, the NLD called for their release because they are members [but no other party called for their release]. I am not saying this out of emotion.

Those who were abducted are from ethnic minorities. [Ethnic Rakhine parties] should also call for their release. But no party did. We predicted ethnic issues will top the agenda this year. So we established an ethnic affairs committee in early 2020. That committee will become more important.

Will you remain in Mandalay or be assigned to the Naypyitaw government? And are you affected by Article 59(f)? (It bars citizens with foreign relatives from the presidency.)

I am affected by Article 59(f). I make no demands about my position. I didn’t demand in 2015 to stay in Mandalay. I will do whatever is assigned to me by the party. I don’t know where I will be sent.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi endorses national reconciliation and exercises considerable caution in engaging with the Tatmadaw [military]. But the NLD government’s relations with the Tatmadaw have been strained over the past five years. And people were worried when the Tatmadaw said the government is responsible for the faults of the Union Election Commission. How will the party improve relations and cooperation with the Tatmadaw? 

The NLD has always said it will cooperate in areas of mutual interest. It will cooperate with any organization, including the Tatmadaw and other political parties, if it serves the interests of the people and country.

We don’t criticize any institution and party, except legally. We have the right to criticize unlawful action.

We contested every election honestly and lawfully and the outcome depends on the trust of the people.

Who do you think will be appointed Yangon Region chief minister? 

I am interested too. Yangon is crucially important. Yangon carries much greater weight than Mandalay. We have to consider Yangon as the base in our COVID-19 prevention plans. It is also the commercial hub, well known overseas. The city must be led by a high-caliber, politically decisive and respected figure. We have made steps based on those requirements.

People have been talking about who could do the job in Yangon. We have to listen to the voices of the people. It is good to consider many recommendations.

We cannot say who will be the next Yangon chief minister but many know the backgrounds of the potential candidates.

There are criticisms that many NLD leaders are weak in economic policies. Some businesses reported suffering from a stagnant economy under the NLD government and they were hit harder due to COVID-19. What are the NLD’s plans to revive the economy? 

The government is implementing its COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP). Other countries are assisting citizens during this health crisis.

Donald Trump lost the election but he gave handouts of US$40,000 per person. Our government can’t afford to pay that much and it would be seen as buying votes.

We won the election not because we provided cash payouts. We won because of the decision of the people and their trust and hope in us. We have to keep implementing the CERP.

There will be other plans under the CERP. And there is also the Myanmar Development Plan and we will carry out other plans. Every country is suffering from the economic and social impacts of COVID-19.

News agencies are suffering seriously from COVID-19. Journalists have had their salaries reduced, some were made redundant and some newspapers and journals had to suspend operations. The Information Ministry cannot provide proper assistance to private media outlets. Will the ministry be abolished?

I dare not answer this question. Please decide yourself, whether the ministry should be kept, based on the things you said like the “right to information” and “access to information” while information technology has come to the forefront of society.

Every government tries to strengthen information and its public relations and gives authority to the [information] minister. I think people have judged how effective the ministry is. What is sure is we don’t spread propaganda through the state-owned media.

Note: This interview was edited on Nov. 19, 2020 to clarify the constitutional provisions on appointing chief ministers and the proportion of military lawmakers appointed to state and regional parliaments.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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