Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Desperately Need an Ethnic Affairs Ministry’

By The Irrawaddy 12 March 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss how the National League for Democracy [NLD], which won the November election, is forming the parliamentary affairs committees; how parliamentary speakers are elected; and how the NLD will form the cabinet based on its ethnic affairs policies. The chairman of the Chin Progressive Party and Chin ethnic affairs minister for Sagaing Division, U No Than Kap, and the director of Tampadipa Institute, Dr. Khin Zaw Win, will join the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

U No Than Kap, over the past three or four months, we’ve seen the NLD’s ethnic policies. The NLD’s election declaration or, in other words, its manifesto, declares publicly that its top priorities are ethnic affairs and internal peace. What is the NLD-dominated parliament’s policy on ethnic groups? What is your assessment of it?

No Than Kap: I prefer to use the word ‘ethnic minorities.’ We were very glad to see the speaker of the Union Parliament sitting at his seat in the traditional Karen attire. Ethnic people have been given other positions aside from the Upper House speaker position, as well. We are satisfied that the NLD also included many members of other political and ethnic parties in parliamentary committees instead of high-handedly forming those committees with their members alone. If this trend continues, it would mean they are making good on their word to build national unity.

KZM: What differences did you see in the outgoing U Thein Sein government regarding these issues?

NHK: As everyone has seen, there were no ethnic speakers or deputy speakers at the Union level [under the USDP government]. There were only one or two ethnic lawmakers in the parliamentary affairs committees. Compared to the situation now, to be frank, the situation in the past was not reassuring. This is, however, just the assessment from the ethnic point of view.

If the NLD continues as they have when forming the cabinet, this would mean taking practical steps toward national unity. We are not interested in what they say, but are only interested in what they do. Mainly, we want to achieve self-determination. But currently at the Union level, ethnicities like Chin or Karen do not enjoy equality with Burmans, even if they have the same capacity. We’ll be satisfied if ethnicities can work on equal terms with Burmans, for example, in legislation. We don’t know yet how the new government will be formed, but if it is formed like the parliamentary committees were formed, half of the work toward building national unity will be done, I think.

KZM: U Khin Zaw Win, the list of presidential nominees will be submitted to the Parliament within a few days, and the NLD will form the government. There are 36 ministries at the time of the outgoing government and the NLD has said it would cut the number to 20 or 21. What should the ratio be if the NLD is going to form a government that considers ethnic minorities or, in other words, a government of national reconciliation? The NLD has continuously said it would form a government of national reconciliation. U Win Htein of the NLD recently said that the NLD would only take 30 or 40 percent of the cabinet positions. So what do you think is the appropriate ratio?

Khin Zaw Win: Just after the election, I said that the NLD had won by a landslide, but difficulties and challenges facing the country are gigantic, and therefore it needs to form an inclusive government. I said this three or four months ago. The NLD had the same thought. So, the question is how large a proportion of ethnic minorities the NLD will include in the government.

Taking a look at the outgoing Parliament, setting aside the Parliament, there are hardly any ethnic people in the government. The outgoing government appointed four or five women to the cabinet. But, as far as I know, the deputy hotels and tourism minister is the only ethnic person appointed by them. They did not appoint ethnic people. But things are quite different now. I hope the cabinet will be formed as we expect. If the NLD will only take 30 to 40 percent of the government positions, I hope ethnicities will be included. It would contribute a lot to rebuilding a situation that has been bad since 1962.

KZM: Now, speculation is rife as to who will become the president. There have been wild guesses. But there is interesting talk that an ethnic person will be offered the vice presidency. U Sai Mauk Kham was appointed vice president in the outgoing U Thein Sein government. So, there is speculation if a Shan or Chin may be a vice president this time. Will the NLD make a different move than the previous government in selecting presidential nominees?

NHK: In the outgoing government, one of the vice presidents is an ethnic Shan. But he is from the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]. In the US, [the president] chooses capable people for the cabinet even if they are from different parties and have different views. In my view, if the NLD appoints an ethnic person, it should choose a capable person, but not someone from its [alliance] parties.

KZM: What particular policies should the NLD government adopt toward ethnic groups? Suppose the NLD reduces the number of ministries to 20: Which ministries are more appropriate for ethnic people or is an Ethnic Affairs Ministry needed to be established for ethnic groups in order to obtain self-determination?

NHK: The Constitution provides provisions about national unity. But according to my experience, we have a lot of difficulty handling ethnic issues because there is neither a Union-level Ethnic Affairs Ministry nor an ethnic affairs minister.

Yes, some ministers have accountability. But sometimes, ethnic issues arise that need to be dealt with at the Union level—for example social, literature and other issues. You may say we can talk directly to the president, but he is quite busy and we need to contact him through the President’s Office Minister U Hla Tun. But in reality, everyone knows that it is quite difficult. It is not convenient.

So, to build national unity, a Union Ethnic Affairs Ministry should be established and an ethnic affairs minister should be appointed from capable ethnic people if possible. It would mean effectively implementing the manifesto of the NLD. In my view, we desperately need an Ethnic Affairs Ministry.

KZM: There are division/state governments apart from the Union government. What measures should the NLD take in ethnic regions like Chin State, where there will be nine ministries? What do you think?

KZW: That issue is even more delicate. Anyway, we are heading toward federalism now. When I meet my ethnic friends, I tell them that it is not enough to focus on the relationship between the mainland and the highlands. There are various ethnicities in their region, and they need to work in cooperation with them. Sometimes, this fact seems to be neglected. Chin people constitute the largest majority of the population in Chin State. But there are many ethnicities in Kachin and Shan states. So, to exercise federalism, ethnic leaders should also be included in the nine-member cabinet. Not only personalities from political parties; ethnic leaders should also be included.

KZM: Recently, rumors went around that NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leadership had negotiated the appointment of 14 division/state chief minister positions. And the latest talk was that the NLD would appoint only its own party members to chief minister positions. Constitutionally, does the president have a mandate to appoint chief ministers. What is your view about the chief ministers being appointed by the NLD and nine minister positions of the state? Will there be problems?

NHK: As far as I am concerned, I don’t think there is strong partisanship in states. The NLD has the mandate as it has won the election, and the president will be elected from the NLD. So, the question is whether the person appointed by the NLD as the chief minister is a reliable person. The NLD is working in conformity with the Constitution now. We can’t say what the NLD is doing is illegitimate until the NLD’s president intervenes in the process of appointing chief ministers after the Constitution is changed for parliaments to elect the chief ministers of their own regions. At present, what the NLD is doing is legal. Whether or not the NLD’s appointment creates a problem will depend on whom they appoint. If he is capable, there will not be a big problem. The most important thing is that we have a capable person as the chief minister in our state.

KZM: [Issue] No. 3 of the NLD’s manifesto says it will work toward ensuring liberty, equity, self-determination and a complete and genuine federal democratic Union. What clear policies will the NLD need to establish a federal democratic Union?

KZW: The top one is about finance. A sufficient budget must be allotted to bring about proper development in a state. Currently, the central government grants a budget, but later it should be considered depending on the request of the state government. Again, there should not be discrimination on the grounds of race in appointing government staff. I want to stress the importance of that; it is particularly more important that there is [existing] discrimination in the military. There should not be discrimination on the grounds of race in the military against officers or rankers. It is important. Again, most of the states lag behind and priority should be given to the education and health sectors there.

KZM: Here, resource-sharing is critically important.

KZW: Yes, that is also extremely important.

KZM: Again, I am afraid that the new next government will not be able to exert much influence on the military.

KZW: It needs to be done step by step.

KZM: U No Htan, can you share your point of view as a Chin ethnic person and leader of the current trends on behalf of the majority of ethnic minorities?

NHK: In my view, ‘federal Union’ is just about terminology. In my view, ‘federal’ and ‘Union’ are the same. I mean, if a country is a Union, it is already a federal Union. If it is a single Union, it is a unitary. This is about terminology. Let it be. We want the right to self-determination and I think that only the state parliament should have the mandate to appoint the top position of the state—chief minister. At present, Article 261 is still not amended and we can’t oppose it when what the NLD is doing conforms to the Constitution. However, that article should be amended as soon as possible. It is part of a genuine federal Union. If the NLD keeps on doing what it is they are already doing, there will no longer be ethnic armed groups.

KZM: We have to wait and watch the actions of the NLD to see how much it will consider different ethnic groups when adopting its policies. Thank you for your contribution.

Editor’s Note: This edition of Dateline Irrawaddy was taped on March 8, ahead of the NLD’s selection of vice presidential nominees on Thursday.