Dateline Politics: ‘There Will Be Ups and Downs, Like Waves’

By The Irrawaddy 6 July 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, English Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe talks politics with Zin Mar Aung and Cheery Zahau.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to our weekly Irrawaddy Dateline Program. Last week, there was a debate on charter amendment in the Union Parliament, but the Parliament voted against amendment of fundamental provisions. In light of this charter crisis, we’ll discuss whether the future of our country’s politics is hopeless or if there are signs of encouragement. Ma Zin Mar Aung, a director at Yangon School of Political Science, and Ma Cherry Zahau, one of the secretaries of the Chin Progressive Party, will join me for this discussion. I am Irrawaddy English Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Efforts were made to amend important provisions such as 59 (f) and 436 of the Constitution. The majority of the people want to amend it, but the efforts failed as it was rejected by military representatives and other lawmakers. Does this look like a negative trend for the country’s politics? Is it disappointing? Or do you see any means to resolve it, Ma Zin Mar Aung?

Zin Mar Aung: We expected that result. We had hoped there would be changes because there was dialogue. But then again, we expected that we would see this result if it was decided in the Parliament without the dialogue. But if we take a look at the results, more than 60 percent of lawmakers voted for amending the Constitution while opposition lawmakers constitute only five percent of the Parliament. If decisions were to be made by a majority of votes, the proposal [to amend the charter] would not have failed. The proposal failed only because of the constitution [which requires more than 75 percent of votes to make certain changes]. It was not an unexpected result and the situation therefore is not necessarily hopeless. In my view, the situation remains unchanged.

KZM: Ma Cheery Zahau, our country has been facing a constitutional crisis because the charter was drafted against democratic norms. How important is it that the Constitution be changed now, or can it be changed sometime later in the future? Which would be better?

Cheery Zahau: The Burma Army already holds 25 percent of seats in the Parliament. If people were able to freely elect the remaining 75 percent of lawmakers, and if the military cooperated with elected lawmakers in the interest of the country and the people, we could say there was hope. It is important that many lawmakers who represent people enter not only the Union Parliament but also the regional and divisional legislature. The military has already sent out a signal to the people, the entire country and the international community that it has held its place [in Parliament], and it does not want its place to be touched. We would not touch them. But the other 75 percent should be elected freely to Parliaments at both state and region levels, as well as the Union level. The military should also cooperate with them. If the military did so, our [democratic] transition would gradually move forward after the 2015 election.

KZM: The Constitution serves to entrench the military, military representatives and several successive governments doesn’t it? The military would not accept it if concentrated efforts were made to suddenly change the Constitution. It would take counter-actions. But if opposition and ethnic parties won more seats in the Parliament in the 2015 election, would there be any potential for constitutional change between 2016 and 2020?

ZMA: In my view, politics is about power and in this regard, the military utilizes its strength to carry out its functions. Opposition only accounts for five percent of the Parliament. We can count on the people’s strength outside [the Parliament], but in legalized, institutionalized administration or legislation [there is no opposition]. In fact, regarding the administration, the military has taken up all the positions. Township administrative officials are appointed by the Home Affairs Ministry. The Home Affairs Ministry is under the military and the army chief. Taking a look at the legislative branch, as Ma Cheery said, there are only 75 percent of lawmakers who could represent the people. We are not playing the whole field, but just three quarters of it. This is the only room we have for direct election of those who can really represent the interests and voices of the people. If people could grasp this chance and elect those who could represent their aspirations and interests, they would have bigger bargaining power in politics after 2015. If the elected lawmakers who represented people were really strong, they would be able to mobilize the military more. I also hope that [the military] will recognize and listen to the strength of the opposition and voices of the people.

KZM: I said the Constitution entrenches them. Looking at our neighbor, Thailand, its military frequently seizes power. There are frequent steps forward and then back again. I think Myanmar people will not want to see such a situation, nor does the military. So, how long will we need to maintain the status quo for the military, Ma Cheery Zahau? I mean how long should we not touch the 25 percent of its seats in the Parliament? The next five years, 10 or 15?

CZ: If I were a military guy—the military already holds the power, the two most powerful positions in its hands—25 percent of seats in the Parliament and all the positions in the administration held by the Home Affairs Ministry through the army chief—I would let the other positions to be taken by people’s representatives. Even then, there would be no loss to for military. If the military had a finger in every pie, it would never win the trust and reliance of the people. In fact, it never got over the past 60 years. Only five years ago, people dared to speak of the military, to look at the military. In the past, the military was an institution that people dared not talk about. If it continues to hold power, we are likely to see a crisis because of it. So I would suggest that the military transfer 75 percent of parliamentary seats and many other things, such as the judicial branch, to the people.

KZM: The major duty of the 25 percent of military representatives sitting in Parliament is to protect the Constitution. It is their key duty. Ma Zin Mar Aung, the majority of people did not accept the 2008 constitution because it is not in line with democratic norms. An election was held in 2010 and there were mountains of voting irregularities. Many boycotted it. And the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) therefore won in a landslide. In 2011, President U Thein Sein’s quasi-government came into power. It was followed by a by-election in 2012. The political trend has changed. The government invited Burmese expats to come back and many returned to the country. But there are still constraints. How long will this trend go on, whether the Constitution is changed or not?

ZMA: The military holds the decision-making power with regard to constitutional changes. On the other hand, there is still the issue of national reconciliation. So we have to wait and see how the military wants to build national reconciliation. [Political trends] will depend on the way the military handles national reconciliation. The goal of national reconciliation has been set, but if roads leading toward that goal are twisted, it will become a problem. It depends on how magnanimous the military is. I hope the military has political farsightedness. I don’t mean the military should be generous. Our interests are bonded. If [the military] would take the view that the interests of the opposition are the dignity and interests of the military as well as the interests of ethnic minorities and that we are in the same boat, then we will be able to see more relaxations and more of the right people in the right places, I hope. But it will take time and it will depend largely on the 2015 election.

KZM: Ma Cheery, you are considering contesting the 2015 election. Let’s take a look down the line, about 5 or 10 years after the 2015 election. How do you envisage Myanmar doing over the next decade?

CZ: The country will be kept busy until 2020 because there are still many problems, such as farmland disputes and the peace process. In a democratization process, there are lots of undesirable laws which prohibit the democratic rights of individuals. On the economic front, commodity prices are rising again. There are many problems that need to be resolved for the livelihoods of the people. So 2015 to 2020 will be a very busy period. We need to work collaboratively. The military has ruled for sixty years, but it did not solve the country’s problems. I want the military to have a cooperative attitude, to solve the problems of the people. If the military can put the people’s interests before its institutional interests in bargaining, drafting laws and designing policies, there will be progress in 2020 and the path beyond will be fairly smooth.

KZM: So, you are optimistic about the next 10 years?

CZ: Much remains to be done.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, a yes-or-no question for you. Do you think the political trend of Myanmar will improve in the next ten years?

ZMA: This is a difficult question for me, because the politics are not black and white at present.

KZM: Well, take a look into the past 20, 30 years, and the past five years as well as the next 10 years. Will the trend be upward or downward?

ZMA: I think there will be ups and downs, like waves. We need to take unseen factors into consideration. We did not discuss many other factors throughout our discussion. There may be other factors. It will depend on how we can handle those. If the military becomes willing to talk, I’m sure the opposition is always ready to talk. Then, we will be able to work together better and that would be positive, we hope.

KZM: Ma Zin Mar Aung, Ma Cheery Zahau, thank you very much.