YANGON—Having kept its long-time ethnic political allies at arm’s length for the past five years, the National League for Democracy (NLD), following its landslide victory in the Nov. 8 election, sent a letter to 48 ethnic parties, urging them to join hands for the cause of a federal, democratic Union.
In the letter, the NLD said it would give priority to the wishes of ethnic people and invited the parties to join in building a federal union. The NLD’s central committee leaders also said the political overture is to include the ethnic parties in a future national unity government.
Until October, amid speculation that the NLD might not win enough seats to form a government alone, the party said it had no plans for a coalition with ethnic parties. But after the Tatmadaw’s statements released earlier this month, which were widely viewed as a warning to the NLD-led government over the election, the NLD government’s spokesman hinted about the concept of a national unity government.
“Ethnic issues and [achieving] internal peace are the priorities of the incoming government,” said Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, vice-chair of the NLD and Mandalay Region chief minister.
The NLD’s central executive committee (CEC) is set to meet soon to discuss forming a national unity government and then will hold talks with ethnic parties, said Dr. Zaw Myint Maung.
As such, it is worth pondering how the new government will emerge. But this is not the first time the NLD has invited ethnic parties to its cabinet.
After its electoral victory in 2015, the party offered Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) CEC member Sai Nyunt Lwin a vice-presidential position in its cabinet.
But after three rounds of negotiations and following the Tatmadaw’s objection, the NLD offered Sai Nyunt Lwin the position of ethnic affairs minister instead. However, the Shan party rejected the proposal, and the deal fell apart.
The SNLD says the NLD has not yet proposed a meeting after its electoral victory this month. In 2020 voting, the SNLD won 15 seats in the Union Parliament, and 37 seats in the state parliament, winning the third-largest number of seats at national level.
SNLD spokesman Sai Leik said constitutional reforms are not necessarily required to promote ethnic rights, but the NLD can prove its political will by appointing ethnic leaders as heads of state governments and devolving greater power to state governments.
If the NLD is able to create a political environment that guarantees equality and self-determination for ethnic people, this will help de-escalate conflicts with ethnic armed groups that are fighting for self-determination, eventually contributing to the peace process, suggested Sai Leik.
“Five more years will be wasted if the wars cannot be stopped and the party does not get on well with the Tatmadaw,” he said.
Under the 2008 Constitution, the President appoints lawmakers from the respective state/regional parliaments as chief ministers of the regions and states. When the NLD formed the government in 2016, it appointed its members chief ministers of regions and states.
Though the NLD won by a landslide at the national level in the 2015 general elections, it suffered defeat in Rakhine State. The Arakan National Party (ANP) formed by local ethnic Rakhine politicians won 70 percent of seats in 2015’s voting in Rakhine, but the Constitution barred the party from taking the helm of the local government.
ANP vice chair Daw Aye Nu Sein said: “The Constitution does not say the president has to appoint members of his own party as chief ministers. He or she can appoint freely as long as the appointee is a lawmaker. We have time and again pointed out that they can select with farsightedness in consideration of democratic norms.”
There were disputes in discussions with the NLD on appointment of chief ministers, with the NLD saying it is difficult for them to trust members of other parties, said Daw Aye Nu Sein.
She stressed the need for practical cooperation between the NLD and ethnic parties and expects that cooperation will take place.
Though elections were canceled this year in all of northern Rakhine over security concerns, the ANP competed in southern Rakhine and won the fourth-largest number of seats at the national level, securing eight seats in the Union Parliament and seven seats in the state parliament.
It now depends on the NLD leadership whether or not to reserve the chief minister position for the ANP, which enjoys popular support among the Rakhine people.
The Ta’ang National Party (TNP) based in northern Shan State and the Mon Unity Party (MUP) based in Mon State won the fifth-largest number of seats after the ANP.
TNP’s general secretary Tar Kyaw Aung said he would welcome the NLD’s move to include ethnic parties either in the Union government or local governments under a national unity coalition.
“I want to see the participation of ethnic parties in a new political landscape. We have lawmakers-elect and intellectuals if the NLD would offer positions in its government. We are ready to cooperate,” he said.
MUP spokesman Nai San Tin said he had no comment at this time on the idea of a national unity government proposed by the NLD and his party would wait and watch the actions of the NLD.
After the 2015 election, the NLD appointed Nai Thet Lwin and Dr. Min Kyi Win of the MUP as the Union ethnic affairs minister and Mon State’s resources and environmental conservation minister respectively. But the party did not consult with the MUP prior to their appointment, and Mon politicians viewed it as a move by the NLD to drive a wedge between party members.
This time, individual members will have to listen to the party’s decision if they are offered positions by the NLD in its government, said Nai San Tin.
The NLD is a member of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)—a political alliance of 12 parties including the parties that won in the 1990 general election and ethnic parties. But after it took the reins of government following the 2015 election, it kept the ethnic parties at a distance, failing to hold multilateral discussions and build party-to-party ties.
There is criticism that the NLD has ignored and given the cold shoulder to ethnic parties with which it had been allied since 1990.
In response to criticism on the part of ethnic parties, NLD spokesman Dr. Myo Nyunt said there were fewer discussions and negotiations because the two sides have differing views about whether democratization or federalism should be the first priority.
“Now that we have become more familiar with running the administrative mechanism, we are working to make progress in our engagement with ethnic people,” he said.
“A genuine Union is our destination. And we will practice democracy in that Union. And all the ethnic people will secure federal rights through negotiations. We will work to build a Union endowed with those federal rights,” he said.
The Pa-O National Organization (PNO), which won four seats in the Union Parliament, six seats in the state parliament and an ethnic affairs minister position in the election, shares that view.
PNO general secretary Khun Thein Pe said: “Because only the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] and the NLD have formed governments up to now, we ethnic people have not been able to realize our wishes. If ethnic parties are included in state governments, they can share responsibility in ethnic issues and projects to be implemented in ethnic areas.”
The Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), a merger of six local Kachin parties, which won a Lower House seat and three seats in the state parliament in the election, said it agrees with the NLD’s suggestion.
KSPP chairman Dr. Tu Ja said: “It depends on what they will offer in cooperation and forming the government. We have no plans to demand this and that.”
He said he believed the NLD would be able to handle ethnic issues more effectively based on its experiences as the government over the past five years.
Though Dr. Tu Ja said he would not ask for positions from the NLD, the KSPP expects to participate in not only the Kachin State government but also the Union government. It expected to win the majority of over 60 seats up for grabs in Kachin. But it lost to the NLD and only secured four seats.
“Cooperation between ethnic leaders and the NLD will contribute a great deal to solving ethnic issues as well as internal peace. I hope the NLD will walk the walk, and not just talk the talk,” said Dr. Tu Ja.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko
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