Ma Thandar: ‘The NLD Will Put People at the Center of Decision-Making’
By Thein Le Win 4 February 2016
NAYPYIDAW — Less than two years ago, Ma Thandar, a well-known human rights activist who has been imprisoned, lost her husband. The death of Par Gyi, a journalist, while in military custody in 2014 remains mired in controversy and conspiracy.
On Monday, Ma Thandar, who has fought tirelessly but in vain to uncover the murky circumstances of her husband’s death, turned up for the opening of Burma’s new Lower House, as an elected member.
Her face covered with yellow thanaka—a traditional make-up—and her body swathed in the colors of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the MP for Ein Ma Township in Irrawaddy Division, her home town, is a favorite of journalists for her friendly and outspoken manner.
Ma Thandar recently spoke to Myanmar Now’s Htet Khaung Linn and Thin Lei Win about her hopes, fears and plans as new NLD MP.
What is your feeling at this moment as a first-time parliamentarian?
I remember my colleagues who together strived for democracy; I appreciate their sacrifices. I expected to reach this goal with them. Along with this feeling and the awaiting challenges for us, we do not feel too happy. We understand we have many responsibilities for the country and people. People voted for us not because of our popularity, but because of their strong resentment against the outgoing government [President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian cabinet]. We have to remain very careful in this situation.
Do you mean people voted for the NLD as it was the only option they had to bring about change?
[The people] have many options for change. However, they have more confidence in the NLD because of its survival through many years of oppression by the previous regimes. They also have more trust in the NLD and our leader Aung San Suu Kyi than the newly elected representatives. It puts pressure on us [new MPs] to do our best for the country. Our faults will impact our party first, and our leader second. So we will have to keep up our policies, and maintain checks and balances on the government.
Last year’s elections were the first free and fair vote since 1962 and Burma now has a democratically elected Parliament, apart from the army’s control over 25 percent of seats. Can we say Burma has reached democracy?
We can say it is the dawn of democracy. The light is not shining down on us yet. There’s still a lot we need to do. Previously, people were not placed at the center of decisions. So [the authorities] didn’t inform the people. They didn’t listen to people; it was top-down. The NLD—it is also mentioned in our manifesto—is going to put people at the center of the decision-making. That’s very democratic.
However, the public has a lot of dreams. We do too, because we were oppressed for so long. So I worry that people could become upset when they are not realizing their dreams a lot quicker [under the new government]. But because we are putting people at the center, we would inform the public and consult with them and listen to what they have to say and what their needs are. Then we will discuss matters in Parliament and make decisions.
During the previous Parliament most laws were proposed by the government and few were based on the people’s will. How does the NLD hope to change that this time?
I’d use our party manifesto to talk about the party’s stance. There are lots of strategies on youths and farmers, and all that. There are provisions for forming independent students’and farmers’organizations. We canvassed for votes using that manifesto.
We need to keep our word. We need to enact laws that will benefit the people, whether they are farmers or students. With a farmer and not the bureaucrats at the table, we would know if a law is beneficial to them or not…So you need to get diverse viewpoints. What this means is that we will have to start with the voices of the people. It might take time, but it would be comprehensive.
How do you feel about the level of women’s participation in Burma’s politics, now that the number of female MPs has increased?
Compared to the 4 or 5 percent [the previous number of female parliamentarians], it is an increase, but in reality the current 13 percent is still low. The female population in Myanmar is quite high, so why are only 13 percent of women in Parliament? I think that’s quite few.
The lack of female participation in politics is an issue that needs to be analyzed. Why are there so few opportunities for women to get involved in politics? I don’t think we should be satisfied saying there are now women in Parliament. We should not stop; we should try even harder to get more female parliamentarians like us who will work on it.
Do you think it’s directly related to the stance of the woman’s family; does their financial situation and attitudes towards women’s roles influence participation in politics?
It’s related to both finances and yi kyay hmu [traditions and culture]. It’s not that separate. Culture is something we really need to safeguard, but some traditions that are not in tune with the times and should be discarded. There are many people and families who do not accept women getting involved in politics. As they have to deal with and work with many people, and be out and about at all times. It happens even in educated circles. As long as you cannot overcome these views, there would be few women—not only in the political arena but also in terms of economic participation.
In Burma, many women are still dependent on their husbands economically. Does that limit their involvement in politics?
I don’t want to separate between politics and economy. A woman earning an income is like a woman in politics—you are out of the house all the time. If you are allowed to participate fully in the economy, then I think you will also participate in politics. I see them as two sides of the same coin. If you can relax this whole attitude that women must be stay-at-home housewives, then you’ll see women take part in the economy, politics and social affairs.
Are you pleased that the interim chairperson who oversaw the opening of the Lower House and the swearing in of the speaker was a woman MP?
I am pleased with that…A chairperson is the one that manages the whole meeting and is powerful. Showing that a woman can do this job means a lot to us. Women are usually very thorough. Men have their own strengths and women have theirs too. If you can fully utilize both sets of strengths, it would be perfect and the country would develop.