Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The NLD Understands What Civil Society Is For’

By The Irrawaddy 23 January 2016

Aung Zaw: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy, this week our guest is Ko Kyaw Thu, who leads a civil society organization (CSO) called Paung Ku. Paung Ku was established in 2007 and has been actively engaged in social works since the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. I’m Irrawaddy Editor Aung Zaw.

Ko Kyaw Thu, welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. Both local and international commentators say that Myanmar is undergoing a big political shift at present and it is very interesting to see the developments. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will take power soon. I’m interested to learn what changes CSOs will see during this paradigm shift. As far as we understand, CSOs have had greater space in the time of President U Thein Sein. The president has also met CSOs in person. And CSOs have spoken out against land confiscation issues and China-backed projects. The Thein Sein government is no different from the former regime in mounting brutal crackdowns, arresting and repressing student protestors.

But we have learned that there has been greater space for CSOs compared to the past. Paung Ku, as a CSO, has also enjoyed greater space. But as far as I understand, CSOs do not enjoy full freedom. We learn that [the government is] keeping a watchful eye and impeding the activities of CSOs. What is the likely scenario for CSOs after the NLD government comes to power?

Kyaw Thu: U Thein Sein’s government came to power under the 2008 Constitution, so their legitimacy is weak. But they are clever. To show that they are making a change, they have made use of CSOs. By granting greater freedom for them, it has tried to convince [the public] that it is making changes. This has however brought a lot of benefits to CSOs. We could operate openly and take up opportunities to operate more. In fact, the government has engaged with CSOs in its interest—to make itself appear legitimate.

AZ: They have established legitimacy by doing so.

KT: Yes, they did. And the number of people who were deceived into believing that they would be able to work together with the government is not small. The government did do some good things—I mean it has made a good beginning—but, whether its changes are real or not, time tells all. At first, the government gave us freedom, but in the end, farmers, students and activists who have stood up for their rights were imprisoned. If somebody exercises their rights, the government prohibits it. It is fair to say that they are clever.

AZ: The government has granted a certain degree of freedom for the media, but at the same time there was also suppression, wasn’t there?

KT: Yes, it allowed for greater space, both for the media and CSOs in the beginning. But its real face was only revealed later, for example the cases of student activists, and Ko Par Gyi, [a journalist] who was even killed.

AZ: Ko Par Gyi’s case…

KT: Yes, the death of Ko Par Gyi, and the imprisonment of Daw Naw Ohn Hla. The government has done things that appeared to be good, and we have had to deal with them cautiously. When we engaged with the government, they tried to influence us. If we opposed their ideas, they accused us of being against the reforms. There was a time when even the foreign embassies thought that we were rather aggressive while the government was making the right changes.

AZ: Foreign embassies thought that this was a reformist government.

KT: Not just reformist, they even thought that they were the champions of reform. They thought it was making real reforms. They thought it was great.

AZ: Especially the foreign embassies of western countries, right?

KT: Yes. The Chinese Embassy does not seem to have such astuteness, considering the way it dealt with the Myanmar government. The so-called changes of the government brought us an advantage in that we could engage with the newly-formed Parliament. There were good people in the Parliament. There are honest people who understand the need to seek the assistance of CSOs, while some exploited us for their political gain and to establish legitimacy.

 AZ: Let’s discuss the challenges. In the past, the NLD was an opposition group and there was a common ground between NLD and CSOs, regardless of their differences. But now, the NLD has become the government, and it will be on a different side from civil society. CSOs have to continue to handle the issues that concern them. So what will be the challenges? Will the NLD government be turning a blind eye to the issues of land confiscation, political prisoners, civil war, ethnic issues, education, and environmental issues? Will it handle those issues? How much it will push the CSOs? What will be the scenario?

KT: The challenges of CSOs will also be challenges for the NLD. The challenges of the NLD will be the challenges of the entire country, as well as the international community, because the international community has actively encouraged the democratic change in Myanmar. Of three elections in 2010, 2012 and 2015, the participation of CSOs was highest in 2015 election. The NLD won an overwhelming majority of votes. The success of the party you voted for is your success. The challenges to the party you voted for are your challenges. Therefore, we, CSOs have studied how we can help the new government in overcoming those challenges—land confiscation, ethnic issues, peace, bribery and corruption. We have thoroughly studied the effects of policies and procedures. These will be helpful for the NLD government. We will have a good relationship with the NLD as the party understands the role of CSOs and we have personal ties [with them].

The outgoing government dishonestly used CSOs for their benefit, but the incoming one will use them with good intent, I believe. The new government can use CSOs cleverly and directly. There are roles that can be assigned to civil society. It will be a challenge for the NLD government to try to understand the voices of civil society and to listen to the voices of the people constructively.

AZ: You mean the NLD government needs to have courage to listen to the voices and demands of CSOs?

KT: You can divide CSOs into two camps. There are CSOs established under the outgoing Thein Sein government and CSOs that support the NLD.

AZ: I found that over the past two or three years, until and during the November election, CSOs have either directly or indirectly contributed a great deal to the NLD as the main opposition party. That’s because everybody wants change. How has the NLD recognized those CSOs now?

KT: Let me tell what I have seen. There is frequent contact between the NLD and CSOs as they engage in social works. They may be strangers to each other in some areas, but mostly, the NLD understands what civil society is for. Many from CSOs have joined the NLD and become lawmakers. They are not complete strangers to each other.

AZ: It is a positive sign, isn’t it?

KT: Yes, it is a positive sign. But on the other hand, the NLD has its own opposition—the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as proxy parties of USDP and their associate CSOs. The NLD needs to view these clearly.

AZ: You mean the ruling party USDP will be out of power soon, but it has established its own CSOs?

KT: Power and money are related. The USDP is the biggest party, and since its members are the richest people in Myanmar, they still have influence. They still have a lot of influence and can get things done.

AZ: So do you think CSOs with strong financial backing will play a greater role after the NLD government comes to power?

KT: The NLD should be aware of those groups. They are still abusing social and religious issues.

AZ: Are they?

KT: Yes. And they also use the Internet in a systematic way.

AZ: They create hate speech systematically?

KT: I think the NLD will keep a watchful eye on this.

AZ: So they are so-called CSOs.

KT: Yes, so-called CSOs. The outgoing government has created an environment in which real CSOs and impostors are mixed together. Those impostors have grown up with the freedom granted by the outgoing government. Some do not know they are impostors as they are mixed with other CSOs. But the NLD should be able to see this. Their opposition, the USDP, is a huge force. Though the USDP has fewer seats in the Parliament now, their empire—their business empire—is very big. The USDP has spent substantial sums of money on the election. Their expenses were not audited because they lost. CSOs and regular people bore witness to how much they spent. They won’t stop just because they lost. They have deliberately drafted the 2008 Constitution to hold onto their power. Don’t underestimate them. It will not stop.

AZ: People have referred to NLD as democratic opposition party for more than 20 years. It is a universal truth that it is difficult for democracy to take root without an opposition. If a government can bear the criticism of the opposition, it will be more accountable to the people. Who will be the opposition in Myanmar? Setting aside the USDP, the USDP is demoralized and is trying to recover for the time being. Setting aside so-called CSOs, can independent CSOs and media become a form of opposition which can call the NLD out?

KT: Let’s not talk about the definition of opposition first. As a government which will establish democracy, the NLD government should heed the monitoring and criticism of the media. And they should value CSOs, which independently speak up and make demands.

AZ: Thank you for contribution.