Analysis: From Militia Leader to House Speaker

By Moe Myint 24 March 2018

YANGON – The move by Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to help a former militia leader with a shady past grab the position of lower house speaker caused political analysts to rub their eyes in disbelief and stoked a heated public debate on social media after the results of the secret parliamentary vote become known on Thursday.

Yesterday morning, the lower house held an election for its vacant speaker seat after the incumbent, U Win Myint, resigned in order to contest the presidential post along with the two vice presidents, former Lt. Gen Myint Swe and Henry Van Thio, following U Htin Kyaw’s resignation from the country’s top official post on Wednesday.

Up until the last minute, senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were telling some local publications that central committee member U Tun Tun Hein, a lower house MP from the Naung Cho constituency in Shan State, deserved the House speaker’s post.

However, when the NLD parliamentarians submitted two nominees to the Lower House’s patron, U Tun Tun Hein’s name was not on the list, while deputy speaker U T Khun Myat, an independent representing Kutkai constituency in Shan State, and U Thaung Aye of Pyaw Bwe constituency in Mandalay division were.

Surprisingly, the NLD lower house MP Daw Khin San Hlaing had nominated U T Khun Myat for the job, while not so surprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the National League for Democracy’s main political rival, had pushed its man, U Thaung Aye.

With the support of the NLD’s parliamentary majority, U T Khun Myat thus was named the new house speaker, while U Tun Tun Hein was elected to the deputy house speaker position. The Irrawaddy has learnt that several NLD lawmakers published status posts on their Facebook accounts that were harshly critical of the nomination of U T Khun Myat rather than publicly express their points of view.

Who is U T Khun Myat?

U T Khun Myat, a Christian ethnic Kachin also known as Jeffery, was born in 1950 in Kutkai Township in Shan State. According to his parliamentary record, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of  Yangon and was employed as an interim part-time lawyer in 1975.

From 1990 to 2010, he served as director of the Office of the Attorney General while leading the People’s Militia in Kutkai Township under the supervision of the military’s North-East division commander. According to some accounts, the militia is still active in the region.

U T Khun Myat was also a member of the 2008 constitution-drafting board and a member of the 2008 constitutional referendum commission, the same year that Tropical Cyclone Nargis caused devastation throughout much of the country, and killed more than 10,000 people.

U T Khun Myat contested the 2010 election on the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ticket, as an executive member in northern Shan State, and secured a lower house seat while the NLD boycotted the poll on the grounds that the electoral laws were unjust. He was also chairman of the Committee on Bills in the lower house, a body that was empowered to make draft legislation and amend or repeal outdated laws, and which assisted former lower house speaker Thura U Shwe Mann.

As a former militia leader, U T Khun Myat allegedly oversaw opium fields in several areas under his group’s control in northern Shan State, including Marsong, Kampapo and Mankaw, Hpapyae, Kyankar, Loingo, and Loinang, In a Shan Drugs Watch report in 2011, U T Khun Myat was dubbed one of the modern druglords in parliament who had allegedly entered the illicit trade following the retirement of the notorious warlord Khun Sa in Shan State.

U T Khun Myat was also a shareholder in Myanmar Mayflower Bank (MMB), which was accused of laundering money for narcotics traffickers and was shut down by the military government in 2005. According to some reports, his militia forced civilians to vote for his ballot in the 2010 election.

Thura U Shwe Mann, centre, looks towards NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while U Win Myint, second left, and U T Khun Myat, second right, pose for a photo before their meeting at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw on Nov. 19, 2015. (REUTERS)

The power behind the throne 

Despite the serious nature of the allegations, U T Khun Myat twice won parliamentary seats, in the 2010 and 2015 elections. His fate changed drastically in late 2015 when his political patron, the former lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann became embroiled in a toe-to-toe fight for influence against former president U Thein Sein and was purged from the party due to the internal divisions the power struggle was causing.

Thura Shwe Mann then appears to have become a close ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the opposition party won a landslide victory in the 2015 general elections. He was appointed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the head of the Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues in February 2016. And then, during the formation of the union cabinet and parliaments, Thura Shwe Mann recommended the State Counselor appoint T Khun Myat to be deputy house speaker of the lower house.

During his final press conference as lower house speaker in January 2016, Thura Shwe Mann acknowledged that he had helped Daw Aung San Suu Kyi secure a private meeting with ex-dictator Than Shwe in December 2015. He also confirmed that he had recommended the NLD nominate U T Khun Myat for the deputy house speaker’s post and expressed his view that the nominee deserved the post as he had successfully accomplished many assignments in parliament and worked for years at the Attorney-General’s Office.

U T Khun Myat also appeared at that event but declined to talk to The Irrawaddy. He was later quoted in other publications as denying the allegations that he had been involved in the drug trade. His appointment was also the talk of the town among political observers back then as well.

When U T Khun Myat was elected to be House Speaker on Thursday, some political observers concluded that Thura Shwe Mann was again acting behind the scenes. However, some senior NLD members claimed that the move was a part of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s national reconciliation efforts and positive for the peace process.

Why did the NLD pick U T Khun Myat?

Similarly, the NLD lawmakers revived the old line they had used in early 2016 that the decision was made in the interests of “national reconciliation”.  Newly replaced deputy speaker U Tun Tun Hein, who also belongs to the NLD, trotted out this line in response to reporters’ questions on Thursday.

“We are implementing national reconciliation and peace,” he said. “It is our election manifesto as well. I see no contradictions in this move in the NLD’s compromises to the public.”

Daw Khin San Hlaing, the NLD central executive committee member who submitted the nomination, told reporters that her party decided to pick U T Khun Myat as he had previously completed a five-year term under Thura Shwe Mann and has been working alongside former lower house speaker U Win Myint – who was nominated as vice president on Friday—and had gained much experience in those two years that could be helpful in handling legislative mechanisms.

“Whatever, we have chosen him and I hope he will follow our party’s policies, guidelines and principles as well,” she said.

The Irrawaddy contacted several NLD lawmakers including regional legislators on Thursday, however most were reluctant to express their personal opinions and simply repeated the party line that “the leaders chose the best.” Yangon division legislator U Kyaw Zeya said it was the “right decision” and argued that the decision to pick an independent lawmaker such as U T Khun Myat rather than a party member suggested that the party didn’t have a quality candidate to fill the post.

Nay Phone Latt, a lawmaker from the Yangon parliament, expressed concern about whether U T Khun Myat could perform as effectively as U Win Myint as he was not a member of the NLD party steering committee.

U Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP), echoed Nay Phone Lat’s opinion that his selection could create challenges for the NLD in the near future.

“I think no matter what, he will not oppose Daw Suu or U Shwe Mann,” he said.

MP U Pe Than said he believed that it was highly possible U Shwe Mann had suggested U T Khun Myat for the speaker position but that the final decision was made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. However, he also noted that the NLD had several qualified legislators in the parliament who were no less capable than U Win Myint.

Judging the qualifications of a politician based on parliamentary work experience is questionable in this case. If, as the NLD senior members argued, U T Khun Myat was the most suitable person based on his experience, then why were the previous vice president Henry Van Thio and the military-appointed vice president U Myint Swe not deserving of the presidential post, as they had almost two years of prior experience?

How come public debate?

Meanwhile, netizens publicly criticized the election of a former militia leader as speaker o the house, which is the higher chamber in the legislature, and it is a key intermediary position between the parliament and the ruling NLD party. Political analyst Yan Myo Thein called the NLD’s choice an insult to its voters. He updated his status on his Facebook wall asking, “Where have our votes gone?”

He predicted that none of the elected MPs from the NLD would dare to criticize this centrally made decision despite the grand words uttered by some parliamentarians in the post-election period, including from some political prisoners who won seats in the parliament.

He questioned why voters should now have faith in NLD MPs as they are struggling to build a genuinely democratic country. He stated that he was confused by the NLD’s promotion of an ex-USDP politician to the house speaker post, as the holder also serves as an essential member of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC).

The NDSC comprises 11 members: the army permanently occupies six seats, including its appointed vice president (1) U Myint Swe and another five seats for the NLD-appointed president, vice president (2) Henry Van Thio, lower and upper house speakers, as well as the foreign affairs minister, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, respectively. But now the NLD has handed a certain vote to a former USDP politician.

“Voting in support (of U T Khun Myat) by the civilian elected NLD MPs in the lower house is the ugliest thing ever,” Yan Myo Thein wrote on his Facebook account.

Ko Thiha Thwe, a journalist who contributes op-ed and political analyses to local publications, pointed out that the move had many potential risks for the NLD and a few potential benefits. He predicted one possible advantage of selecting U T Khun Myat as house speaker was that it might decrease partisanship in the parliament and legislative matters might pass more smoothly. However, the NLD’s choice also implies it does not have many quality politicians in the party. Moreover, it could be concluded that the NLD politically had surrendered some legislative power.

“It could also damage the confidence and sap the spiritual strength of NLD loyalist MPs.”