NLD Spokesman: ‘Civil-Military Relations Need to Be Warm’

By Htet Naing Zaw 21 March 2016

Dr. Zaw Myint Maung was recently designated the sole member of the National League for Democracy (NLD)—other than its chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi—authorized to speak officially on the party’s behalf. A lawmaker in the Mandalay Division legislature, Zaw Myint Maung joined the party shortly after its tumultuous formation amid nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988, and was elected in a general election two years later in an NLD landslide that the ruling junta of the time ignored.

He recently sat down with The Irrawaddy to discuss a range of issues confronting Burma’s incoming NLD government, including a streamlining of the executive branch, the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone dam hydropower project, the military and its relationship with party leader Suu Kyi.

As his answers make clear, however, the NLD is remaining tight-lipped on specifics ahead of a power transfer due April 1.

People voted for the NLD because they want change. What will be the difficulties for the NLD to make radical changes that reach the grassroots? At present, the directors-general and staff on the ground are used to old habits. How will the NLD try to change system?

Yes, it is a challenge for the new government. In making changes to the old administrative apparatus, which all government employees are used to, we need to take a top-down approach and set out policy guidelines. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that government staff need not worry about their future, and that she would not slash the government workforce. No matter what they did in the past, we’ve all blotted them out.

But they need to work cleanly and serve the interests of the people when they work under our government. We’ll encourage them to do so. If they continue to be corrupt and don’t serve the public’s interests, we’ll take action against them. Firstly, we’ll persuade them, and train them. We’ll tell them to work honestly with genuine goodwill and avoid corruption in doing the works of public service delivery.

Mainly, policies will decide how far the changes will go. Government staff are now worried about the cutting of ministries. Don’t worry. To be frank, we want to reduce government expenditure. There will be transfers and we’ll arrange for staff to transfer to departments they desire. But they need to undergo training if they are not qualified for a transfer. I would say they don’t need to worry about it.

Most of the permanent secretaries of the ministries are former military service personnel. What role will they be assigned under the new government?

Frankly speaking, we are ready to work with anyone if that serves the interests of the country and citizens. We’ll not care about who he is. The most important thing is to work honestly with genuine goodwill and without corruption. People have suffered for around 50 years waiting for changes. Now the opportunities have come for us. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that there is no dignity higher than that of serving the country.

Why did the NLD decide to keep the Information Ministry?

We think we should maintain the Information Ministry because for the time being, we want to educate people about certain things and talk about certain things. I have said that we would not use the ministry for propaganda. We’ve decided to keep the ministry to display transparency and accountability.

Will the NLD appoint deputy ministers?

As we are preparing to reduce ministries, we are also taking steps to reduce the ministers. I won’t say we will not appoint a deputy minister at all. The permanent secretary has to do the job of deputy minister. It is the permanent secretaries who will run the ministries. And we’ll have to lay down guidelines for them. In the parliamentary era, the permanent secretary was the post of deputy minister. Only those who are capable were appointed to that post. We may appoint deputy ministers if necessary. We’re not saying we won’t appoint deputy minister at all.

What can you say about press freedom in the time of the NLD government?

Let’s speak frankly about media freedom: The things you are talking about today, such as access to information and right to know, are starting to be addressed by Parliament. If the Parliament takes responsibility for it, media will enjoy those rights to the extent that the legislation enshrines. Rather than the government enabling such things, it would be better if they are legitimized at Parliament and exercised according to the law. I do want to see the development of media.

Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi take an official position in the government? Is there any way she can still become president?

To be frank, it is too early to answer your question. For example, what positions did U Ne Win hold in the time of the Burma Socialist Programme Party [BSPP]? Presidents changed, but he still held the party chairmanship. Another example is Mao Zedong. In a democratic country, both the government and the parliament have to operate under the policy of the ruling party. So, as long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the chairwoman of the NLD, she is the chairwoman of all.

People are concerned that the Myitsone dam [hydropower project] may be resumed during the new government’s term. An NLD leader has also said the project may be resumed in a different form. How does the NLD plan to strike a balance between building good relations with China and managing anti-China sentiments among Burmese people?

Your question is a very tough question, quite difficult to answer. Our policy is to serve the people. But we have to consider the question of geopolitics. China is our neighbor and so is India. To stand with dignity between these two countries, we have to be able to stand as a genuine democratic and federal Union.

I mean if we are a democratic federal Union, we’ll be able to stand tall with our territorial integrity no matter how powerful other countries are. We know nothing about the Myitsone dam project, and neither does Parliament. The previous Parliament also knew nothing about it. And our new government does not know anything about it. To solve the problem, we have to know first what the terms of the dam were.

China is talking about the dam recently, but it is just talking about what it wants to see happen. A senior NLD member’s remarks about the dam are also just his view. I dare say nothing before I know details about the dam agreement. But I want to repeat that our policy focuses on the people.

Both Burmans and non-Burman ethnicities have welcomed the creation of an Ethnic Affairs Ministry. What approach will the NLD adopt to address ethnic issues?

It is not an issue that has recently appeared. It has existed since a long time ago. As to the Ethnic Affairs Ministry, we must well understand that our country is a multi-ethnic country. It is important that our country gets peace. Democracy can’t be built without peace. In our country, civil war was born with independence. To handle ethnic issues, we have to take care of internal peace.

Ethnicities have their fundamental rights. Our land is a land of equal rights and correct policies. How can peace be achieved unless and until ethnicities and Bamars [majority Burmans] enjoy freedom, justice and equality on equal terms? To ensure these three things means handling the ethnic issues, doesn’t it?

The previous government was able to sign a ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement’ with eight ethnic armed groups. But many more have not yet signed it. How much further does the NLD expect to push the peace process over the next five years?

It is one of our priorities. It is not that we’ll do this first and do that later. We will handle priorities at the same time wherever possible. The NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement] is important in the peace process. A ceasefire agreement is the thing between the military and ethnic armed groups, and peacemaking is something between government and ethnic parties, and this is one of our priorities.

You were frequently seen at meetings between the commander-in-chief and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What do you think of the relationship between the military and her?

I am not authorized to comment. But, they welcome us warmly. We are also warm toward them. Civil-military relations also exist in other countries. The civil-military relationship needs to be warm, especially when a country is changed from authoritarian regime to democracy. I don’t think there will be problems while the leadership remains dedicated to building the nation.

What measures will the NLD take to eradicate deeply rooted corruption and bribery in the country? In the time of the previous government, [giving government personnel] a present of more than 300,000 kyats [US$250] was prohibited.

It will be embarrassing if we can’t do as much as we say. We need to fight corruption. The corruption index of our country is really poor, it is almost the worst [in the world]. We need to improve it. There must be an anti-corruption commission. Warning is not just enough, actions must be taken. There will be fewer cases of corruption and bribery if we take actions.

We need to reconsider the gift policy. We need to learn the amount of gifts usually given in other countries. As far as I know, $100 is the maximum. We need to consider these things when we think about anti-corruption. I would say just wait and watch.

Regarding land confiscation, though the U Thein Sein government gave compensation and returned some lands, only a small percentage of landowners have gotten back their lands. What will be the land policies and agricultural development policies of the NLD government?

It is one of our priorities. It is the people, the farmers, who bear the brunt of land confiscation. This must be resolved. At present, we can’t say how much we will reduce poverty. Poverty must be reduced if we want to bring development for the country.