New Portfolio, Old Political Hand for Ethnic Affairs Post

By Lawi Weng 22 March 2016

RANGOON — Nai Thet Lwin has been nominated to act as the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s minister of ethnic affairs, a newly created portfolio that supporters in Burma hope will help further national reconciliation in the diverse nation of nearly 52 million people.

An ethnic Mon who is vice chairman of the Mon National Party (MNP), Nai Thet Lwin’s name appeared on a list of 18 Union-level ministers announced in Parliament on Tuesday.

Though the NLD did not offer specifics on who would take on which of the 21 ministries making up the incoming government’s cabinet, Nai Thet Lwin’s daughter confirmed that the 76-year-old has been tapped to lead the Ethnic Affairs Ministry.

“My father will do the best he can with this position offered him,” Mi Kon Chan told The Irrawaddy.

A longtime politician committed to equal rights for Burma’s ethnic minorities, Nai Thet Lwin is well-respected in Mon circles. Born in a small village in Kawkareik Township, Karen State, Nai Thet Lwin attended Moulmein University in neighboring Mon State, where he became involved in underground resistance to the ethnic Burman-dominated government of the late dictator Gen. Ne Win.

He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1970 and spent several years teaching and advocating for the preservation of Mon literature and culture before committing more fully to his people’s struggle for self-determination.

According to Nai Soe Myint, general secretary of the MNP, he allowed Mon politicians to establish a political party office at his home ahead of Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising. That party, the Mon National Democratic Front, would go on to win five seats in a 1990 general election that the military government nullified. The regime dissolved the party, in which Nai Thet Lwin was vice chairman, in 1992 and imprisoned many of its members. Nai Thet Lwin did not contest the 1990 vote and avoided imprisonment.

The MNP was formed in 2012 as a reincarnation of the former MNDF. Nai Thet Lwin has since served as vice chairman of the MNP, though he again opted not to run in last year’s general election. His party is a member of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), a grouping of ethnic political parties that contested the 1990 election.

He is believed to have maintained close ties with the New Mon State Party, an ethnic armed group that abstained from the signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement on Oct. 15 of last year.

Nai Thet Lwin’s daughter Mi Kon Chan, who was elected to Parliament for the NLD, said it was too early to know how effective the Ethnic Affairs Ministry would be, but she highlighted equal rights and peace as priorities.

“It is time for our ethnic [minorities] to work toward having equal rights,” said the lawmaker, who represents Mon State’s Paung Township in the Lower House. “We have been expecting to have this chance for a long time.”

The NLD-dominated Parliament is expected to discuss the proposed cabinet roster on Thursday. Tuesday’s nominations were ostensibly put forward by President-elect Htin Kyaw, who was chosen by NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as her proxy leader of the incoming government.