Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Constitution Has Made Two Lions Live Together in a Cave’

By The Irrawaddy 14 May 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It has been 40 days since the first civilian government came to power in Myanmar, after enduring 54 years under a military regime and dictatorship. This week, we will discuss the current situation in Myanmar and opportunities and challenges facing the new government in the days to come. One of the 88 Generation group student leaders Ko Ko Gyi, and Ko Min Zin, a PhD candidate in  political science at the University of California, Berkeley, will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Ko Gyi, it has been 40 days since the new government assumed power. Because it was elected by a majority of the people, there are many opportunities. At the same time, there are also challenges. Can you identify the opportunities and challenges?

Ko Ko Gyi: Around 80 percent of voters supported the National League for Democracy [NLD] in the election. The NLD won about 80 percent of the elected seats in both houses. Winning the election meant the voters gave them the mandate. This is a great advantage.

Except for charter amendments—since the Constitution can’t be amended without the approval of over 75 percent of lawmakers—all of the other ordinary laws can be changed, annulled and rewritten if more than 50 percent of the lawmakers agree. This allows the NLD to easily amend, annul and write laws that affect people’s daily lives, for example—issues regarding land confiscation, labor disputes, wages, foreign investment laws and job creation. This is an opportunity. Since the NLD won the election, it was able to form the government and therefore, it is the NLD that will implement the laws that are amended and approved by Parliament. That the NLD has received the mandate to both enact and implement legislation is an advantage.

The challenge is constitutional restriction. Because of the restrictions imposed by the Constitution, important ministries are still held by the military. The relationship between the new government and the Home Affairs Ministry, Defense Ministry and Border Affairs Ministry, which are under the control of the military, has become a new serious challenge. How much will they be able to cooperate? The major challenges in our country are civil-military relations, and ensuring equality for ethnic groups or establishing a federal union. Because establishing a federal union is related to civil-military relations, the challenge to the new government and the Parliament is how much they will be able to reduce tensions with the military.

KZM: In the people’s view, Suu Kyi’s new government has done what it should do when it came to power; for example, it released political prisoners and proposed that Parliament appoint her to the position of state counselor. What advantages does this give the NLD? Suu Kyi has taken up an important position, even though she is not the president. As Ko Ko Gyi said, the NLD dominates both the Parliament and the government. What advantages will this give the NLD to serve the interests of the people in days to come?

Min Zin: Their advantage is legitimacy. One important thing to note is that Suu Kyi has become a leader who has both influence and power. Over the past 50 years, rulers had power but they did not have influence on the people. Suu Kyi has both. She was able to form the Ministry of the State Counselor, which is similar to the chief minister’s office. People may or may not like it, but she has become a leader who has both influence and power.

On the other hand, the Constitution—there is a Burmese saying that two lions cannot live in one cave—and it seems that the Constitution has made two lions live together in a cave. The NLD government and the military have to live together in a cave whether they like it or not. With two lions in a cave, if a balance can’t be struck or a middle way can’t be sought, unnecessary tensions and confrontations may arise, or one side may overpower the other side. The main challenge to the current government is how to find that balance.

KZM: The military has ruled the country in successive periods. And it is not yet clear whether the military has a clear policy regarding its relationship with the civilian government. And I think the government, led by Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, has adopted a policy of acting according to circumstance. Have you noticed this?

KKG: After the election, the NLD won the vote to form the government, and the people called for forming a government based on national reconciliation. There were criticisms against the NLD for various reasons, and there were cases in which military representatives objected collectively to proposals submitted by the NLD.

As far as we have seen, while there are efforts to get along with the military, there is also friction and tension. The relationship between the military, the new government and Parliament is crucial in relation to ethnic issues. Unless they are in agreement, talks with ethnic groups and non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA] will face difficulties. It should be noted that the commander-in-chief has promised to cooperate with the new government. This could be viewed as a constructive attitude.

KZM: Suu Kyi has said she would organize a ‘21st century Panglong Conference’ to achieve national reconciliation and internal peace. But taking a look at the recent parliamentary session, we can see problems in Arakan State. The military has objected to broadcaster MRTV-4’s description of the Arakan Army [AA] as the defense services.  How much can we expect from the 21st century Panglong Conference?

MZ: The problems are so big that it would be difficult to solve them all at once. Whatever it is called, I’m afraid that a single discussion will not completely solve the problems for the next five or 10 years. While we are marching toward solutions, we should build understanding and trust and make ourselves stronger throughout the process.

I think process-oriented thinking is needed, on top of goal-oriented thinking. There should be a focus on the process. There are four major problems in Myanmar: democratization, ethnic issues, civil-military relations and poverty. It would be good if Burmese politicians understood that ethnic issues are the most important, because if these can’t be settled, ethnic minorities will view themselves as second class citizens, which will hinder the democratization process.

KZM: That has been the case in previous times.

MZ: Yes, it has. Democracy will lack its essence if their citizenship is uncertain. Also, ethnic issues are related to geopolitics and the intervention of neighboring countries. Regarding civil-military relations, the military assumes that it will continue to exist until the ethnic issue is settled. Regarding poverty, resource sharing is a problem because most of the country’s resources are located in ethnic regions. It is likely that these other problems can be solved if remedial measures center on ethnic issues.

The problem is that former President Thein Sein’s government did work to handle this issue, but it took a top-down approach. The upper echelons handled the job; people from other walks of life, the media and other educated people could barely participate. If the government alone handles it, the result will just be a short-term solution and will not last.

KZM: Do you think the current government is taking the same approach or do you see changes?

MZ: Since the government has not made their policies clear to the public, it is still early for us to judge. Suu Kyi has said that although there are calls for all-inclusion, it is not possible. Instead, various stakeholders will be able to take part at different, opportune times.

What is important for the government is information. It governs the country based on the information it gets. The NLD needs to cooperate with the military to obtain information related to security. Regarding information about other sectors, it will rely on the General Administrative Department [GAD] under the Home Affairs Ministry, bureaucrats, or policies that will allow civil society organizations, the media, and scholars to hold public consultations and speak freely. This is a challenge that the NLD has to handle carefully.

KZM: Here, freedom of expression and independent media will be very important.

MZ: If the government restricts criticism and expression, or limits the flow of information because it is overly concerned, it will be the first to suffer a loss. If it gets incorrect information, its policies may be wrong.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi, there is criticism against the new government because Suu Kyi has included former generals and officials from the previous government when considering national reconciliation. What is your assessment of the performance of the government in the first 40 days? And what are your suggestions?

KKG: In a political change, the new government should maintain its ties with allies that it has cooperated with for ages and also collaborate with the other side. It should strike a balance between the two.

KZM: Ko Min Zin, the current government is a civilian government, but the military still holds a certain degree of power, both in the government and Parliament. It also maintains its grip on the country’s economy. What are your specific recommendations for the current government?

MZ: There are two points. One is to build power. In my view, the current government has built a certain degree of power and it should slow down its efforts. For the time being, it should find a balance and try to work together with the military.

Another suggestion is to support freedom of expression. The media have already shown their support for the NLD, and their criticism of respected leaders does not mean that they want to tarnish them. In my opinion, the more they criticize, the more information will flow in the form of news and the more constructively it will serve the government to enact policies based on the people.

KZM: Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Min Zin, thank you for your contributions.