Have Ethnic Groups Lost Faith in the NLD?

By Nang Seng Nom 14 May 2016

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) stood by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) for many years in its opposition to the military junta. But less than two months into the NLD’s first term, that relationship has already hit the skids—a sign that the NLD’s ethnic policy, or lack thereof, has disappointed many of Burma’s minorities.

“[Ethnicities] voted [for the NLD] with high expectations, and the result is clearly shown in the Rakhine [Arakan] issue,” said Khun Tun Oo, the chairman of the Shan Nationalities for League for Democracy. “We can no longer rely on the NLD.”

He was speaking at a meeting of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), an organization made up of 12 major ethnic groups, held in Rangoon on May 7.

On Monday in the Lower House, Speaker Win Myint shot down a proposal from an Arakan National Party (ANP) lawmaker to provide government aid to the more than 2,000 displaced Arakanese.

Aye Maung, chairman of the ANP, said: “I would say it is time the NLD government paid more attention to the voices of the ethnicities. Every party in Parliament wants to stop the civil war. The majority has to listen to the voices of the minority.”

No doubt, the Arakanese and Shan peoples are not happy with the actions of the new NLD government and the Parliament, despite pledges from Aung San Suu Kyi to promote peace and national reconciliation through what has been dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

The Panglong Conference was convened in southern Shan State in 1947 by Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, and leaders from some of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, in preparation for independence from Britain. It led to the signing of a famed agreement by the same name, which has been widely praised for the spirit of inclusiveness and cooperation that it fostered between the dominant Burman majority and ethnic minorities.

However, ethnicities are disappointed with the failure of Suu Kyi and her party to meet with ethnic parties after it won the election and formed a government.

Though ethnic parties won in Shan and Arakan States in the 2015 election, the NLD did not reach out to the winners and instead appointed their members to the posts of chief minister of those states—a move that shook the ethnicities’ trust in the NLD.

“The problem is that the NLD government does not hold talks with any party,” said Maung Maung Soe, an ethnic affairs analyst. “The ANP won a majority of [elected] seats in the [Arakan] State legislature. If the NLD had met with them earlier, it would not have led to the problems we see now. The ANP would have accepted the appointment of [the NLD’s Arakan State Chief Minister] U Nyi Pu. But, the NLD did not hold discussions with them at all and the ethnicities’ trust in them has eroded.”

Though Suu Kyi has said she would convene the Panglong Conference within one or two months, she has not yet met with the ethnic armed groups that have been clashing with the military, nor has she sent them a message of peace. This arouses the suspicion of all ethnic groups.

She did meet delegations from the eight non-state armed groups that signed the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement last October, along with members of the Burma Army, in April.

But when an NLD lawmaker met with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) without the party’s imprimatur, he was suspended from a parliamentary committee—yet another move that has fed distrust in the NLD.

In April, a Lower House NLD lawmaker, Soe Htay, who is a member of a parliamentary committee on ethnic affairs and peace, along with two other NLD members, met leaders of the UWSA, the largest ethnic armed group in Burma, without party approval. The NLD was apparently unhappy that he did not inform the party in advance and suspended Soe Htay for one year from assuming important roles in the party.

Many have questioned the true reason behind his suspension.

“It is difficult to understand what [the NLD’s] motivations are,” said Maung Maung Soe. “U Soe Htay meeting with the [UWSA] is a good thing. Both he and the Wa group had good reasons for the meeting. That U Soe Htay was punished has raised questions, and deepened ethnicities’ suspicions of the NLD.”

If the NLD is to build a genuine democratic nation, problems of internal peace, ceasefires and a federal Union must be solved. And to solve these problems, it is imperative for the NLD to build trust with ethnicities by meeting and developing relationships with them, said Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups.

The NLD should be open-minded when dealing with ethnic issues and should be aware that attempts to cozy up to the military will distance it from the ethnicities, ethnic leaders said at this week’s UNA meeting.