Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘People Expect the NLD Will Solve All Their Problems’

By The Irrawaddy 4 April 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week we’ll discuss people’s expectations for the new government. The Irrawaddy news crew members Ko Thalun Zaung Htet and Ko Lawi Weng will join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor, Ye Ni.

We now have a new democratic government elected by the people for the first time in 54 years, spanning 1962 to 2016. The new democratic government will have to take on the burden of curing the country’s political, economic and social sectors, which deteriorated during that period. People have voted for the National League for Democracy [NLD] and we’ve now seen a NLD government and Parliament. Ko Thalun, do you believe the NLD government and the Parliament will be able to rebuild the country’s political, economic and social sectors?

Thalun Zaung Htet: Since the military staged a coup in 1962, Burmese people have not had a civilian government. The military regime ruled in successive periods. It held an election in 2010 while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners were still behind bars. The 2010 election was not a fair poll and was riddled with massive electoral fraud. The Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] won the election and U Thein Sein’s government came to power. The 2012 by-election was relatively free and fair since it was not a poll to elect the government. In the 2015 election, people from all walks of life voted for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the NLD therefore won in a landslide—around 80 percent of the vote. As a result, they have now formed the first elected government in 54 years and the president is U Htin Kyaw.

People want to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as president, but she is barred from the presidency by the 2008 Constitution drafted by the military. So far, people’s wishes have not yet been fulfilled as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still can’t be president. But a government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has taken power.

Talking of people’s expectations, people have high expectations for the NLD government. People have high expectations that the NLD government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will be able to solve all the problems. People from every walk of life, from trishaw drivers and squatters to the educated and affluent, as well as civil servants, voted NLD. They voted for the NLD because they want to see big changes for the country. They have been deeply desirous of changes. People have high expectations for the new government, and believe completely that it will be able to solve all their problems.

YN: In response to speculation that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will handle four ministries, some say that it is too much for her, even though she has taken on the task with good intentions. People are concerned about her health; whether she will be able to cope with the stress, given her age and the formidable duties. What is your view, Ko Thalun Zaung Htet?

TZH: There were 36 ministers and almost 100 deputy ministers in the U Thein Sein government. Their salaries were a large burden on the country. Now, the NLD government has reduced the number of ministries to 21 and ministers to 18, with a minister managing more than one ministry. This saves a large chunk of budget, which is very good for the country. The lean government is a good sign for the country.

On the other hand, people at home and abroad doubt whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to manage four ministries at the same time as she will take the helm of Foreign Affairs, Education, Electric Power and Energy ministries, [as well as the President’s Office ministerial post], all of which are important for the country and are in need of fundamental reforms. So, everyone is concerned. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly said she would manage those ministries temporarily because she has not yet found the right people.

Most of the cabinet members are U Shwe Mann’s allies, for example U Thein Swe, the former transport minister and the minister of the Prime Minister’s Office [under the junta government]. He has a bad reputation for corruption. He allegedly has ties with Asia World Co. So, this raised people’s eyebrows. The new government is elected by the people but it does not look impressive to the people. There is also criticism of the government as being the administration formed jointly by U Shwe Mann. It is undeniable that the government is not 100 percent impressive. We’ll wait and see if the government will be lean, effective and corruption-free and spend minimum budget, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said.

YN: Ko Lawi Weng, you are an ethnic Mon. The ethnic issue is the top priority on the NLD’s election manifesto. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has included ethnic persons in the government and the Parliament to show her resolve to handle the ethnic issue. She has even set up an Ethnic Affairs Ministry, a completely new ministry. She has shown her consideration for ethnicities. But what the ethnicities actually want is federalism. What do you think Ko Lawi Weng?

LW: As to the ethnic issue, I would like to talk about two points—ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups. In the case of Arakan [State], the Arakan National Party [ANP] wants to get the Arakan State chief minister position. It said it would cooperate with the NLD only if it gets the Arakan State chief minister position, and would stand as opposition if not. There has been lots of criticism about the ANP and some even say the ANP does not want to cooperate at all.

The chief minister position has been announced and it is now certain that the ANP will not get that position. Let’s take a look at the reason why Daw Suu did not give that post to the ANP. Arakan State is important because of the Rohingya-Bengali issue. That issue has marred the image of the country on the international stage. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seemingly wants to address the problem to somehow revive the country’s image by appointing her party member as chief minister.

If she gives the chief minister position to the ANP, she would have to negotiate with the ANP first to handle the Rohingya-Bengali issue. That’s why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not give ANP that position, I think. In the case of Shan [State], U Khun Tun Oo’s Shan Nationalities League for Democracy [SNLD] also wanted to get the state chief minister position, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not give it. Why?

There are various ethnic armed groups in Shan State. The SNLD supports SSPP [Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North] while the SNDP [Shan Nationalities Democratic Party] backs the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South]. The SNLD and SSPP are close, both are based in northern Shan State. Palaung are currently clashing with the Restoration Council of Shan State [RCSS] and Palaung would of course not like a Shan taking the chief minister post. There are [ethnic armed] groups like the Wa, Kokang and Mongla in Shan State. It would be quite problematic if a Shan were appointed chief minister. Daw Aung Suu Kyi would know the consequences, and that’s why she did not give SNLD the chief minister position, I think. What’s more, ethnic groups are also engaged in armed clashes with the military there.

YN: So, Ko Lawi, you mean in settling the conflicts in Arakan and Shan states, the NLD has given consideration to national reconciliation and therefore has not chosen anyone from the warring sides, and only appointed NLD members who are neutral.

LW: So that the problems can be solved more easily. As the NLD has appointed its party member in Shan State, Palaung or Wa have nothing to say. Ethnic issues in Shan State are quite problematic. The NLD’s appointees are rather neutral, also for the military. That’s why Daw Suu has chosen her party members.

YN: What is your view of ethnic affairs minister Nai Thet Lwin, who is also an ethnic Mon?

LW: Daw Suu is very smart to have appointed Nai Thet Lwin as ethnic affairs minister. Nai Thet Lwin has never contested an election but he has a reputation in the Mon National Party because of his support for the party and Mon social organizations. He is a reputable person, but not a key political player in the Mon National Party. He is under no one’s influence. Except for his cordial relations with the leadership of the New Mon State Party, [an ethnic armed group], he is under no one’s influence. No one is pulling his strings. Daw Suu sees this point and has therefore appointed Nai Thet Lwin, I think.

YN: A new democratic government has now emerged as hoped for by the majority of the people. But there will be many challenges for the new government to tackle in rebuilding the country and a society that has deteriorated. But we should not be dismayed at this. I would like to conclude this discussion with the saying, ‘Rome was not built in a day.’