In Person

U OoHla Saw: ‘The NLD-Dominated Parliament Has Not Thought About Federalism in Advance’

By Htet Naing Zaw 29 December 2016

The Irrawaddy’s HtetNaingZaw recently sat down with U OoHla Saw, an outspoken Lower House lawmaker representing Arakan State’s MraukU, to outline his perspective as an Arakan National Party (ANP)Central Executive Committeemember (CEC) on the most pertinent obstacles and issues that he feels the current National League for Democracy (NLD)administration is facing. In the interview, U OoHla Saw was also confronted with and asked to comment on criticism that the Arakanese community and its political entitiesare working against the promotion of human rights in Arakan State, particularly concerning Muslims who self-identify as Rohingya. The views that follow are his own.

Do you think Burma’s democratization will be successful? What challenges are being faced in the process?

I think challenges have become bigger, because of,for example, problems like the one that broke out unexpectedly in Arakan State. If the government fails to handle it properly, it will draw response from Muslim groups and fellow Asean members. This is a challenge.

Speaking of the country as a whole, people have expected a change, but the government has not been able to bringsocioeconomic development. As for peace, there was a certain amount of progress under U TheinSein’s government. But the situation is getting worse now, and tensions have increased.

The government has publicly said that it would build a federal democratic Union, but we can’t even feel the slightest essence of federalism, and ethnic groups are frustrated with the central government. There are big problems and big challenges.

Do you think a federal democratic Union can be built without changing the 2008 Constitution? Are there other ways?

Previously, ethnic parties and the NLD pushed for Constitutional amendments, and so did 88-Generation students. Then the calls for Constitutional amendments fell silent after the NLD won the election. [The government] changed its plan of amending the Constitution through the Parliament, and instead said it would hold a peace conference with ethnic armed groups, and submit the results of the conference to the Parliament to change the Constitution.

This is more complicated and includes more stages than amending the Constitution through the Parliament because the latter just needs over 75 percent of votes for approval to change the Constitution.

If we choose the method of going through the Parliament, the Constitution may be amended if the army has some willingness to do so. But the process of going through peace talks is difficult. There is not even an agreement between political parties, the army and ethnic armed organizations. The process can’t even start yet.

There was some momentum for Constitutional reform under U TheinSein’s government, but now it seems the momentum has been lost and is heading in the wrong direction. But if civil war stops completely, political dialogue may happen, and there will be an answer if dialogue takes place.

What is your assessment of the NLD’s efforts for national reconciliation, which it has said is its top priority?

We are happy with the NLD’s leadership toward national reconciliation. But the NLD has shown no signs of holding a dialogue in a friendly and cordial manner on equal terms. The NLD won in a landslide and when it came to forming the government, it seems that the NLD leadership thought that,for example, the NLD in Mon State or Chin State could represent the ethnicities there. So there have been gaps and misunderstandings between the NLD and ethnic parties that both won and didn’t win the election. Ethnicities voted for the NLD with trust, but the NLDhas not fulfilled their wishes in terms of building a federal Union, and [promoting] regional development and a ceasefire. So, there is frustration.

The ethnic Arakanese people are often viewed positively on the democratic front, but there is criticism that they are narrow-minded concerning the promotion of human rights and regarding issues of race. What would you say to that?

We respect democracy and human rights, but ethnic rights are also very important. We are different from other parts of the country in that we have the problem of illegal Bengali immigrants. [Editor’s Note: ‘Bengali’ is a term frequently used to describe the Muslim Rohingya minority concentrated in Arakan State, but the group itself rejects this term, as it is used throughout Burma and by the government to imply that the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh. The Rohingya maintain that they are not immigrants and have lived in Arakan State for generations.]People from the mainland do not understand the extent of the problem. We Arakanese people respect human rights. Bengalis are also humans and we respect the rights they deserve. But they have claimed more than human rights. This was already proven by the recent incidents in Buthidaung and Maungdaw. And the government has publicly said that those militant attacks are linked with international organizations. [Editor’s Note: This original claim has since been criticized as lacking in evidence.]

Arakanese people do not support the government’s approach to resolving issues in Arakan State.What would be your suggestions?

The first thing for the government to do is to say that there are no Rohingya. Many historians as well as U TheinSein’s government and the commander-in-chief of defense services have said that there are no Rohingya. DawAung San SuuKyi needs to officially ban the name Rohingya. [Editor’s Note: The Rohingya self-identify as such, rather than as Bengali. Advocates and researchers have described the denial of the right to self-identify as a step toward denying the Rohingya citizenship and basic rights.]

I would suggest that theyforget the name Rohingya, and try to follow the laws of Burma and adapt to its culture. The government should investigate illegal migration and it should grant citizenship to those who deserve it. There are many people who deserve citizenship since they have lived in the country for four or five generations. And the government should assist them for their social development and livelihood, and give them access to schooling and freedom of movement across Burma.

This problem is not so big, but there are big external pressures from the UN, the UNHCR and so on. These are the challenges.

Regarding DawAung San SuuKyi, what is your assessment of her government’s performance?

The cabinet needs to be strong. Our country is facing problems like rising dollar prices and a trade deficit. The cabinet should be bold in solving those problems and picking up the country’s economy. The NLD has able persons: use them. If they are not good, just leave them behind. They have been there for one year. If NLD continues using them, the country will suffer.

You mean DawAung San SuuKyi’s cabinet members cannot follow her steps and that a bureaucracy still exists?

I totally accept what you have just described. The bureaucracy remains, despite the fact that the democratic government has come to power. The ministers are afraid of making mistakes, and of displeasing DawAung San SuuKyi. And they dare not push their subordinates to change their mindset.

The ANP won some seats in the national legislature. What has the party done for Arakan State through the parliament?

We are not satisfied. We got around a 250 billion-kyat budget for our state under U TheinSein’s government. Now, we are getting a smaller budget under the new government, which is just the opposite of its rhetoric about democratic federalism.

Frankly speaking, the NLD-dominated parliament has not thought about federalism in advance. They should have [developed] moderate thoughts in advance about how they Bamars could co-exist amicably with ethnicities, what models of federalism could be built, and what concessions they could make.

And the army does not seem to think about it. It even says that the 2008 Constitution already provides a federal Union. And I believe that there is no theory teaching about federalism in the NLD. I thinkthat NLD CEC members have zero knowledge about federalism.

Federalism is a very sensitive issue to them. I am also not satisfied with the Parliament’s efforts regarding federalism. The Parliament seems to even shy away from discussion about the peace process. In successive periods from the time of U Ne Win to the early days of U TheinSein’s government, governments were afraid of talking about federalism. Then, they started to get familiar with it and the lead peace negotiator from U TheinSein’s government,U Aung Min,finally openly talked about it.

Until now, it is difficult to discuss federalism in the parliament. If we can’t go to federalism constitutionally or through an internal peace process or in the parliament, federalism will just be a nominal label.