U Nanda Hla Myint, spokesman for the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), recently sat down with The Irrawaddy senior reporter Htet Naing to discuss the party’s views on the current political landscape, the Rakhine issue, the November by-election and the country’s democratic transition.
We heard that the ex-generals are forming a political party. Some of the party leaders are former USDP members. So did they split from the USDP?
I have no comment about ex-generals forming a political party. Party leader U Soe Maung was once a USDP member, and contested the election as a USDP candidate.
But he has officially resigned from the party, and we have no comment about him forming a political party according to his beliefs and political ideas. He neither cooperated nor consulted with us [to form another party]. It is not the case that he has split from our party.
U Soe Maung served as the President’s Office minister under the previous government. So will former President U Thein Sein support his party?
Former President U Thein Sein remains a member of our party. He served as the chairman of our party. After our party’s 2016 conference, he continued to support the party as the patron of the party’s leading committee. But then he retired from the leading committee after handing down the party to the younger generation, saying that he wanted to lead a peaceful life due to his age and health.
However, he is the parent and patron of our party. We hold him in esteem, and he remains a party member. So I’d say that he is on our side.
There are allegations that the USDP, illegally and without transparency, took over all the property and buildings owned by the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association when it was transformed into a political party in 2010. What do you want to say about that?
The USDP has acquired all the land and buildings in line with the law. In this era of democracy and transparency, you can review the law if you think certain things were done against the law in the past. We deny the untrue allegations that we stole public property. We don’t accept those allegations.
In this era, legal action can be taken anytime if we act unlawfully. So I’d say that both our party and the public will not believe or accept those allegations.
Two Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison under the current government. Do you think it will impact press freedom?
The U Thein Sein government prioritized press freedom. It was under his government that private media were allowed. His government paved the way for free speech, which resulted in today’s press freedom. The stance of our party is to prioritize press freedom.
But regarding the case of the two Reuters reporters, every citizen in the country must respect and adhere to the existing laws. I have no comment about the ruling of the court. History will decide if it is right or wrong.
If the two reporters think the verdict is unfair for them, they can appeal. We have no comment about the decision of the judicial branch. But the policy of our party is to support press freedom in a democracy.
The International Criminal Court has decided that it has jurisdiction over Myanmar regarding the Rakhine issue. How will it impact Myanmar’s politics?
We are not an ICC member, so the ICC can’t exercise jurisdiction over Myanmar. The ICC is still discussing whether it is possible to exercise jurisdiction over Myanmar through Bangladesh, which is a signatory and member of the [Rome] Statue.
There are a variety of factors that have yet to be fulfilled for the ICC to take action against the government and Tatmadaw [Myanmar military]. A lot of strong evidence is still needed. There are still difficulties and I think it is unlikely that the ICC will be able to exercise jurisdiction over Myanmar.
Does the government provide protection to the Tatmadaw, which is facing various allegations and is under international pressures because of the Rakhine issue? What do you think? Does the government need to protect the Tatmadaw?
Personally, I think there is a need to provide proper and adequate protection. We can draw the conclusion from previous cases that there was no proper protection. In fact, we are a sovereign state. Though the US approached the Rakhine issue from the human rights perspective, Washington pulled out of the [UN] Human Rights Commission when Israel, whose people are not its citizens, was affected.
The armed forces in each and every country have to protect the sovereignty and citizens of their country. The Tatmadaw protects our citizens and does not commit human rights abuses as claimed by the international community. We don’t accept that. We assume that it is a blatant insult to the sovereignty of our country.
The government should also not accept international pressures under the pretext of human rights. The Tatmadaw is part of the government, so allegations against the Tatmadaw are allegation against the government. So for the sake of the national interests and national security, the government must decisively repel international pressures against anyone, not only the Tatmadaw. But the government has not yet done enough in that regard.
What will the USDP do in the 2020 election if it doesn’t win in the coming by-election?
How can you say we won’t win it? We are a big political party, and we have served as a government. We have proven our capacity and our performance to the people. People can compare us with the current government.
After we became the opposition, we have only engaged in smart politics. We are not an opposition that puts the government into a tight corner, that incites people to take to the streets or to riot. We will support all the good actions of the government peacefully.
But when the interests of the country and citizens are at risk, or when there are policies and actions that would trouble the country, we will inform the people and make demands of the government. We will release statements and provide solutions.
We haven’t put the country and people into a tight corner as the opposition. We believe that we will get a certain degree of public support if people can objectively assess all the things we have done. So we will win a certain number of seats in the by-election.
We will prove ourselves with hard work and win the trust of the people. And we believe that people will also trust and vote for us in the 2020 election.
Do you think the country’s democratic transition is irreversible, or can it be reversed?
To make a comparison, the USDP government led by President U Thein Sein emerged after the 2010 election and managed the country from 2011 to 2016. His cabinet systematically developed short-term and long-term plans for five to 30 years in coordination [with other political actors]. So nobody asked during those five years whether the country would reverse, and people were not concerned about it.
Two years into the NLD’s administration, people have started to worry about a possible reversal. The reversal they fear is a military coup. They are worried about it.
It depends on the policies and actions of the current government. It has the responsibility to implement the right policies and provide the right leadership to ensure stability and prevent a reversal during the transition period. Whether democracy will reverse depends on the management of the government. The Constitution clearly states that the Tatmadaw has to provide protection if the sovereignty of the country is at risk, so my understanding is that we need not worry [about a coup] unless and until that happens. Cooperation, effort and leadership by the government will be the key to prevent it.
As you said, people are worried that the army may stage a coup again. Under the current government, there is increasing international intervention regarding the Rakhine issue. And there are also racial and religious conflicts. What issues could cause a reversal?
It can be caused by the weakening of the rule of law, increased foreign intervention, and foreign pressure. And we have to take underlying causes into consideration.
The main reason the Tatmadaw government switched to democracy is because the Tatmadaw thought it was time to change to a democracy according to the wishes of the people. So it paved the way for democracy, and political parties have joined it.
Of course there are a lot of challenges and difficulties during the transition period. But the Tatmadaw is the last front to safeguard our three main national cause. I mean if the union is at risk of breaking up, if we are at risk of losing sovereignty, if national solidarity is at risk and if the country is experiencing a period of anarchy, the Tatmadaw can’t just stand by. If it stood by, it would be blamed by history.
To prevent this, the current government has to act with great caution, correct policies and correct management. The U Thein Sein government also faced a lot of challenges during the transition period, no less than now. But it managed to systematically control foreign pressure and domestic unrest.
The current government is under increased international pressure. There are nationalist problems, racial problems, religious conflicts, economic crisis, weak rule of law, and frequent clashes with ethnic armed groups.
So the current government should study what its predecessor did and how it maintained control under such circumstances. Based on its study, it may mend its weaknesses. If it can cooperate with better management based on that, there is no reason for a reversal.
The [current government] consults no one and cooperates with no one. If it thinks highly of itself and acts without regard for the opinions of others, then the situation that people dread may reoccur any time.
Is former military leader U Than Shwe still playing a role in Myanmar’s politics? Does he still have political influence?
As far as I’m concerned, [former] Senior General Than Shwe has shunned politics since the USDP formed a government after the 2010 election. He is not involved in our party, either.
As far as I know, he now lives a peaceful life of reading and praying. He was sometimes mentioned in books, for example, written by U Shwe Mann, [according to which] he took Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to meet him. And President [U Thein Sein] pays his respects to him as his seniors in the Thadingyut.
When party leaders pay their respects to him, he reportedly says nothing about politics. I heard he said that he had handed [over the country] with trust and called for unity to spur greater development than during his time. He is no longer involved in politics. He does not discuss politics and lives a peaceful life, so I heard.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.