RANGOON — Since it won an overwhelming majority in last year’s election, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has been vowing to form a “national reconciliation” government, with part of that plan including the appointment of members of other political parties to positions of power.
In several cases, the party has done just that, but a strange thing appears to be happening along the way: The NLD’s outreach, rather than uniting the country around its governing coalition, has exposed inter- and intra-party fissures, with at least one ethnic political party at risk of splitting in two.
Differences between ethnic political parties and the NLD have been on display most visibly in Arakan State, where the Arakan National Party (ANP) in November made one of the most successful ethnic electoral bids. But in the months since, that success has laid bare factions within the party at the same time as ANP-NLD relations have soured.
The latest development in the ongoing saga came last week, when one of the ANP’s regional legislators, Kyaw Lwin, was selected by the NLD for an Arakan State government cabinet post, minister for forestry, mining, agriculture and livestock.
President Htin Kyaw’s appointee for chief minister of the state, the NLD’s Nyi Pu, will lead the regional government, and on Thursday selections for subordinate state-level cabinet positions were revealed and confirmed by the Arakan State legislature.
Just as the NLD has consolidated the bureaucracy by reducing the number of Union-level ministries, it has also reduced the number of Arakan State ministers from nine to seven. Along with Kyaw Win of the ANP, three ministers are NLD, one hails from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and two are of no partisan affiliation.
Following his appointment on Thursday, Kyaw Lwin confirmed that he would accept the post, and in the process shed light on coming internal friction as a result of that decision.
He told The Irrawaddy that he had secured the support of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) faction within the ANP in his decision to join the cabinet, though he is not a former ALD member himself.
An analysis by The Irrawaddy earlier this year chalked up tensions between the NLD and ANP, as well as the latter’s fissures within, to a divide between members of the former Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and the ALD. The two parties merged ahead of the 2015 election, but as has become apparent in recent months, differences between the two factions persist, with former ALD members perceived as too willing to acquiesce to Suu Kyi’s call for “collaboration.” The schism was highlighted by ANP patron Aye Tha Aung’s appointment—and willingness to accept—the NLD’s appointment of him as deputy speaker of the Union Parliament’s Upper House.
On Friday, Kyaw Win described himself as a “third-party” member of the ANP not linked to either of the factions that formally merged last year, and said he did not expect that the RNDP-siding politicians against working with the NLD would amount to his ouster from the party.
But as is often the case in Burmese politics, a simple and straightforward appointment this would not prove to be.
An ‘Opposition’ Party
Kyaw Lwin’s appointment followed the news early this month that ANP members had verbally agreed not to join an NLD-led cabinet without first informing the Arakanese party’s leadership, with central executive committee member Aung Mya Kyaw somewhat absurdly telling The Irrawaddy that the party would levy a 50 million kyats (US$42,000) fine on any violators, who also might be subject to expulsion from the party.
Last week ANP Vice Chairman Phoe Min doubled down on the claim to have reached a verbal agreement concerning the party’s regional legislators, an account disputed by Kyaw Lwin, who told The Irrawaddy before his confirmation that there was “no official agreement” on the matter.
Speaking before his appointment was made official, he signalled that he was open to working in an NLD-led regional administration.
“If the NLD supposes that we are suitable for the post and offers it to us, I think we should not reject the offer, so long as we emphasize our nationality’s interests as well for the country,” he said, setting him on a crash course with the dominant RNDP faction within the ANP, which made clear early this year that it would be no NLD ally if the ruling party did not appoint an ANP legislator to the chief minister post.
On Saturday, the ANP released a statement saying the “dissident” Kyaw Lwin had been expelled from the party.
On March 24, the 22 Union Parliament lawmakers from the ANP and NLD Chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi held a meeting in Naypyidaw, where she told the Arakanese legislators that in an NLD-led state government, the ANP would be offered some positions. The NLD chairwoman reportedly asked for the ANP lawmakers’ “collaboration.”
ANP leaders were not satisfied, and sought a follow-up meeting with its senior leadership, including party Chairman Aye Maung, who lost his election race in Manaung Township and was widely believed to have coveted the chief minister post.
ANP parliamentarian Pe Than cried foul, saying the “NLD failed to keep its word,” after the party four days later went ahead with its plan to appoint an NLD member as chief minister, prompting ANP lawmakers to stage a walkout when Nyi Pu’s name was announced.
Elsewhere in Burma
While the political dynamics differ, a similar fracturing is happening within the Mon National Party (MNP). While the ANP won a majority of elected seats in the Arakan State legislature, the MNP secured merely four seats between the Union Parliament and Mon State legislature last year, making it one of dozens of ethnic political parties that fared poorly in a nationwide vote largely dominated by the NLD last November.
Despite its poor showing, the MNP was offered two positions by the NLD.
The highest was that of Union-level ethnic affairs minister, which went to MNP Vice Chairman Nai Thet Lwin. In addition, the NLD offered one post at the state level, the minister for forestry, mining, agriculture and livestock.
According to the MNP’s secretary, Nai Soe Myint, both NLD nominees from the Mon party were approached individually and not through the MNP leadership.
Nai Soe Myint confessed that his party was also dealing with “internal factions,” saying the party chairman, Nai Ngwe Thein, had made the decision to forego a vote by the party’s central executive committee on whether or not the party should take the NLD offers.
“Under some circumstances, the MNP chairman is entitled [to dismiss] the CEC’s desire because of the democratic transition period and [his] preference for collaboration. The previous people [USDP] could be much stronger than pro-democracy groups if the MNP is against the NLD. That is why MNP chose the collaboration option.”
In Shan State, where a mixed electoral outcome offered a rare bright-ish spot for the USDP, both the NLD and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) were bested by the former ruling party in regional parliament races. The SNLD won 24 seats, while the NLD won just 23 in the 137-member legislature.
Nonetheless, the NLD’s control of the Union-level executive affords it the constitutional prerogative to form its state-level counterparts across all 14 states and divisions in Burma, and here too the party sought collaboration in the form of ministerial posts, most prominently the Union-level ethnic affairs minister portfolio that ultimately went to Mon political veteran Nai Thet Lwin. Prior to his appointment, an NLD offer went out to the SNLD, which declined the invitation to hold that seat in the Naypyidaw cabinet.
Local media reported that similarly, the SNLD was asked to join the state-level cabinet, but there too it opted to reject the offer, reportedly after a failed bid to secure the Shan State chief minister post, which went to NLD regional parliamentarian Lin Htut.
The Irrawaddy made several attempts to contact the SNLD spokesman last week to gain greater insight into its decision to abstain from executive involvement, but he could not be reached for comment.
Ethnic Shan journalist Sai Htun Aung Lwin said he assumed the apparent ambivalence of the SNLD and other ethnic political parties toward working with the NLD was due to the ruling party’s method of approaching individuals rather than respective parties’ leadership before selecting cabinet nominees from outside its ranks.
He said a similar feeling had led members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society—not a registered political party but influential among pro-democracy circles in Burma—to decline positions offered by the NLD.
In the absence of SNLD participation, the Shan State cabinet of nine members includes five from the NLD, three USDP and one militarily appointed minister.
Then there is Chin State, a complex amalgam of ethnicities officially grouped as 53 “sub-ethnicities” of the predominantly Christian Chin. The Zomi Congress for Democracy (ZCD) was the state’s surprise success story among ethnic political parties, securing six seats between the Chin State legislature and Union Parliament.
While elsewhere in the country resentment toward the NLD has been manifest, ZCD Upper House lawmaker Gin Kam Lian said that is not the case among the Zomi party, which was given one cabinet appointee in the new seven-member Chin State cabinet.
Pau Lun Minh Thaung, elected in November, will serve as Chin State’s new social affairs minister.
“We are fine with the NLD,” Gin Kam Lian told The Irrawaddy.
Like the Shan journalist Sai Htun Aung Lwin, the former lawmaker Ye Tun of the Shan National Development Party said he saw parallels with the NLD’s current travails in courting collaboration with smaller parties and the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB). That party, which was once politically influential despite being made illegal under the socialist era of Ne Win, had similar problems courting ethnic armed rebel groups, said Ye Tun, who added that the lesser parties later blamed the CPB for their diminished standing as a result of CPB-instigated internal feuds.
He said the NLD’s outreach was commendable, particularly the appointment of Aye Tha Aung to the influential deputy speakership, but said the party had shown a lack of “mutual respect” to less prominent political parties by not approaching their leaderships and instead going to their individual members.
“Big political parties especially should be cautious, that kind of problem has happened often between small and big parties,” Ye Tun said.
“I don’t suppose that Suu Kyi has done it intentionally,” he continued, while adding, “They [the NLD] should have empathy on the other [parties].”