RANGOON – During a farewell address to the Union Parliament in Naypyidaw on Thursday, President Thein Sein described what he felt were his administration’s achievements and suggested that Burma in transition is more stable than its Middle Eastern counterparts.
“Five years on, terrorist attacks are happening in Middle Eastern countries in democratic transition. Millions of civilians have fled as war victims. Anarchy and extremist uprisings have pushed them far from their original democratic goals,” he said, without listing any countries by name.
It was not the first time that the president has drawn comparisons between Burma and the Arab world. In the lead-up to November general election, Thein Sein posted a video to his Facebook page featuring a montage of violence following the 2011 push for political change known as the Arab Spring.
The events were contrasted with selected peaceful images of Burma under his own administration. Many saw it as a cautionary message to voters, not to stray from the leadership of his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“Although our country has some difficulties and challenges, [we have] implemented democratic transitions step-by-step and our processes are stable,” he said on Thursday.
In his speech, Thein Sein described what he felt were his government’s accomplishments: the release of political prisoners, the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement and a successful general election.
On January 17, Human Rights Watch described a more tainted presidential legacy.
“Burma’s growing number of political prisoners is the most glaring indictment of President Thein Sein’s human rights record,” said Phil Robertson, director of the Human Rights Watch Asia division. The group highlighted an increase in the arrest of students and land rights activists in 2015—now numbering more than 400.
Robertson also criticized Thein Sein’s administration for passing discriminatory “race and religion” laws regulating marriage, religious conversion, and, in some cases, birth rates.
However, the laws celebrated by Thein Sein in his speech included those enacted regarding revenue, media and foreign investment.
Many of the developments the President spoke of centered on economic growth; the formation of an independent central bank, the relaxing of some US sanctions, and cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
Thein Sein admitted that the practices of corruption and malpractice in the country are difficult to curb immediately; The Irrawaddy reported on Thursday that Transparency International has, for the second year in a row, designated Burma one of the world’s most corrupt countries—ranked 147 out of 168 states.
The outgoing president thanked international governments, organizations, media and citizens who collaborated with his administration. He said that he prays for the new government to build a better country.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which around 80 percent of contested seats in the November vote, is set to officially assume power in early April. Credit -Irrawaddy
RANGOON — On Monday Burma will convene its first popularly-elected Parliament in more than half a century, a historic moment unthinkable just five years ago in a country locked under decades of military rule.
Burma’s powerful army overthrew the last democratically-elected Parliament in 1962. The rule of the junta was characterized by economic mismanagement and the oppression of the country’s citizens.
Elections in 2010, widely criticized as neither free nor fair, ushered in a semi-civilian government backed by the military. President Thein Sein embarked on a series of economic and political reforms, culminating in last year’s free elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.
The opposition’s resounding victory has been accepted by the ruling party and the military establishment, which optimists hope will pave the way for a new and peaceful chapter in Burma’s often bloody history of war, revolution and crackdowns.
The NLD won 255 seats out of 440 in the Lower House and 135 out of 224 in the Upper House, handing the party the majority it needed to form a government. In contrast, the outgoing ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only secured 30 seats in the Lower House and 11 seats in the Upper House.
The NLD’s domination could lead to a more active Parliament with new policies quickly driven through, but a lack of political pluralism is a concern, said Khin Zaw Win, director at Tampadipa Institute and a Burma political analyst.
The lack of a strong opposition can weaken the checks and balances that allow a healthy democracy to thrive, he said.
“On the one hand, this could strengthen democracy, but on the other, we have a weaker multi-party system. There is a danger when a single party dominates the politics in a democratic system. It could lead to either good or bad results,” he told Myanmar Now in an interview.
Speculation Over President’s Role
There is much speculation about who will be installed as president by the NLD-led government.
The 2008 Constitution bans Suu Kyi from the presidency as her two sons are British nationals, but the popular leader has publicly said she would be “above the president” and is expected to nominate a loyal aide to the post. Some analysts have also suggested that Article 59 (F) of the Constitution, which blocks her presidency, could be suspended, leading her to take the helm.
If that is to happen, the party would need the cooperation of the military members of the Parliament, which, according to the charter, hold a fixed bloc of 25 percent of seats in both houses of the national Parliament as well as in state and region assemblies.
Any amendment of the Constitution would require the approval of more than 75 percent of MPs, making the military representatives the kingmakers.
In addition, the key ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs remain under the control of the military. This week, outgoing president Thein Sein has sought to widen these powers by tabling a last-minute proposal to bring the ministry of immigration under the wing of the home affairs ministry.
The continued dominant role of the military in the political landscape means the NLD government will need to make compromises with military leaders. As such, it is in a strong position to make an immediate impact on issues such as healthcare and education, but has less sway over security matters, according to Myat Thu, head of the Yangon School of Political Science.
“According to the Constitution, the military holds absolute power regarding the security of the country,” he told Myanmar Now.
The military also holds six out of 11 seats on the powerful National Defense and Security Council.
Too Much Power?
On Monday’s opening session of the Parliament, the mostly newly-elected MPs will choose a chairman, who will then handle procedures to elect speakers of the two houses of the Parliament.
The speakers play a powerful role as, under the Constitution, they can develop strong policy-making autonomy from the executive branch.
On Jan. 28, Suu Kyi confirmed in a meeting with NLD MPs that her party will choose Win Myint, an NLD MP and former High Court advocate, as Speaker of the Lower House and Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and NLD MP, as Upper House Speaker.
The latter is a grandson of Mann Ba Khaing, a national hero who was assassinated together with Aung San, founding father of modern Burma and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The two deputy speakers nominated for the Upper House and Lower House would be Aye Thar Aung, a senior leader of the Arakan National Party and a longtime political comrade of Suu Kyi, and T. Khun Myat, a USDP MP and leader of a people’s militia group in northern Shan State, respectively.
Shwe Mann, a powerful former general, USDP lawmaker and former speaker, was credited with breathing life into the last Parliament and ensuring the position served as a counter-balance to executive power.
With such a strong mandate, the NLD can do much—and swiftly—to introduce reforms that help ordinary citizens long mired in poverty, said Tampadipa’s Khin Zaw Win. He remains concerned however about the emergence of a new authoritarianism.
“My personal concerns are about a single person controlling the Parliament and the government. Would the MPs who have to obey this person dare say anything that would go against this person’s wishes?” he said.
“In that case, it’s the public and the media who have to intervene. I want to see positive changes.”
For some people, however, it would be difficult for the NLD to make immediate changes, as it first needs to undo decades of mismanagement and to curb the control of military.
“Our people are expecting significant changes. From peace to education and job opportunities,” said Zay Yar Linn, a university graduate.
“The NLD cannot fulfill our hopes immediately as it has many challenges. If they can do 30 percent more reforms than the previous government, it would mean the NLD has been successful.” Credit -Irrawaddy
Two more student activists are declared fugitives by a Mandalay court, facing charges of unlawful assembly for their role in a demonstration.
MANDALAY — Two more student activists have been declared fugitives by a Mandalay Division court, facing charges of unlawful assembly for their role in a demonstration against the detention of their peers.
Kaung Zaw Hein and Shine Min Htet Zaw are accused of taking part in a protest in Mandalay’s Chan Aye Tharzan Township last year demanding the release of scores of students and supporters who were arrested in March during a crackdown on the student movement for education reform.
The court has accepted the case against the pair and a warrant has been issued for their arrest. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Another student activist who is currently in detention, Ye Yint Paing Mu, was also dealt an additional charge this week.
Ye Yint Paing Mu was arrested last December for his alleged involvement in graffiti at Mandalay’s Yadanapon University, where protesters had spray-painted anti-government messages and called for the release of all political prisoners.
He now faces charges in Amarapura and Chan Aye Tharzan township courts.
Earlier this week, 10 students were informed that they will also face charges for their alleged role in a protest more than a year ago.
Fifty-three other students and supporters of the movement have been detained in Pegu Division since the crackdown in Letpadan, while more than a dozen others have been released on bail and are awaiting trial.Credit -Irrawaddy
The issue of how far to go in reaching out to former foes from half a century of military rule may be one of the first fault lines to emerge within the NLD.
RANGOON — When leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy huddled this month to discuss the transfer of power in Burma, they quickly reached decisions on who from the party should take the key posts in the next parliament.
But as attention turned to a candidate from the junta-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a heated argument erupted over his track record and suitability for office, a senior NLD official who was present at the meeting said.
The issue of how far to go in reaching out to former foes from nearly half a century of military rule may prove one of the first fault lines to emerge within the NLD, with the potential to threaten or even derail Suu Kyi’s ambitious agenda.
“Some rank-and-file members are worried and not happy about the NLD working closely with the military. They never kept their promises so they don’t trust the army,” said Aung Myo, a mid-ranking NLD member.
Eventually NLD leaders agreed at the early January meeting to offer the posts of deputy parliament speakers to T Khun Myat from the USDP and Aye Thar Aung from the Arakan National Party (ANP), an ethnic party from Burma’s restive Arakan State.
The nominations were made as a token of national reconciliation as Suu Kyi’s party prepares for office after winning about 80 percent of the elected seats in parliament at a historic general election late last year.
That the nomination provoked such heated debate underscores a growing sense of unease among some party members at the speed with which Suu Kyi has sought to build ties with powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing and former junta leader Than Shwe.
“Breaking down the distrust and convincing everybody to work together represents the single biggest challenge for the incoming administration,” said Myint U, an independent consultant and expert on Burma bureaucracy.
“Failure here may slow down or even stop reforms and could cost the country billions of dollars in lost investment.”
‘Grassroots Don’t Like Them’
The NLD, which will take office in early April after a drawn-out transition, is a broad church of views united by the shared experience of the decades-long struggle for democracy and held together by Suu Kyi’s charismatic leadership.
Many members, including the Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, suffered years of persecution and imprisonment by the junta that had ruled Burma for 49 years until a semi-civilian government took power in 2011.
“There’s a history, a past that is hard to forget for many people,” said Lin Htoo Maung, a sales executive at a Rangoon-based bank.
Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president by the 2008 Constitution, which experts say was drafted by the military to entrench its influence on politics.
The charter also gives her little choice but to engage with the military, despite her huge election win.
The army controls a quarter of the seats in Parliament—giving it a constitutional veto—a large number of seats at the security council and three security ministries: defense, border affairs and home affairs.
At the closed-door leadership meeting, it was also agreed to give the powerful post of the Lower House speaker to Win Myint, one of the closest party acolytes of Suu Kyi, said the NLD official present at the meeting.
Another NLD leader familiar with the meeting told Reuters that, while Suu Kyi was firmly in charge and led most decisions, the mood among party grassroots was already having an influence on the speed and depth of rapprochement.
“We are worried, or concerned that our people have little or no experience in actual governance,” the NLD leader said, explaining why the party had been discussing who from the outgoing administration might be retained.
“The majority of the cabinet will be NLD. But there will be some technocrats from ethnic parties and other parties,” he said. “It would be difficult for us to keep any current ministers. The rank-and-file, the party grassroots don’t like them.”
Both NLD leaders, who belong to the party’s 15-member central executive committee, spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
One of the areas that arouses the most bitterness in dealing with the legacy of junta-rule would likely be land grabs that the military and army-linked enterprises were accused of by rights activists, said Win Min, who runs the NLD office in southern Rangoon.
“They tortured villagers, grabbed the land and forced them to move out by setting crops on fire,” said a rank-and-file Rangoon-based NLD member who did not want to be identified out of fear of retribution. “I’m not saying that our senior members are making the wrong move, but I think we need to be careful while working with them.”
No one from the military or USDP was available for comment.
To be sure, many political prisoners and the top echelons of the party support Suu Kyi’s reconciliatory approach.
Tin Oo, NLD’s “patron” and one of its most deeply respected leaders, told Reuters that the NLD did not want to put any pressure on the military or push for the constitutional amendment immediately.
“We will agree to anything that would make them feel comfortable to make the transition stable,” said the 88-year-old, who served as army chief in the 1970s.
“We know that we will win in the end anyway, but we don’t think it’s the right time to prioritize it now.”Credit -irrawaddy
NAYPYIDAW — Burma election winner Aung San Suu Kyi will not press for an immediate change to the constitution that bars her from becoming president, and will instead appoint a ceremonial head of state, a senior official in her party said on Wednesday.
She will also include in the new cabinet at least one member of the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was trounced in the November vote, as well as technocrats from ethnic minorities who have long complained of being sidelined from power.
The democracy champion is keen to avoid open confrontation with the powerful military, perhaps wary that the last time she triumphed at the ballot box in 1990, the army kept her under house arrest for years and refused to surrender power.
That does not mean Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has given up on its overarching goal of amending the constitution, the party official told Reuters, but the issue has not been discussed yet between the sides in recent weeks.
“Our choice of president will be only ceremonial and the decisions will be made only by Aung San Suu Kyi,” said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of negotiations on how the country will be run following the NLD’s landslide election victory.
He reiterated Suu Kyi’s assertion that she would stay “above the president.”
But by appointing a figurehead president, the NLD aims to “show the people this ridiculous constitution must be amended.”
Suu Kyi has discussed aspects of the transition with the army chief at “a few,” previously unreported, closed-door meetings since the elections, he said.
She has also appointed NLD liaisons who are in regular contact with the army, part of intensifying efforts to build trust between the party and its former enemies.
Last month Suu Kyi met the former head of the junta that ruled the country for 49 years, Than Shwe, pledging the NLD wanted work for the “brighter future” and not focus on the past.
Pragmatism Trumps the Past
The Nobel laureate’s conciliatory steps towards the army reflect a pragmatic approach to transition from semi-civilian rule in place since 2011, and see Suu Kyi’s image as a democracy icon blur with that of a political operator.
That pragmatism has drawn criticism in the recent past.
One issue Suu Kyi largely avoided during election campaigning, for example, was the plight of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims, a silence that was frowned upon by some international observers.
As far as political transition is concerned, however, experts said the 70-year-old’s willingness to do business with the former military dictatorship was unavoidable.
“Her priority… is not to get rid of the military or to diminish it, but to bring it under civilian control, and I think that’s understood by everyone to be a gradual process,” said Richard Horsey, a respected Rangoon-based analyst and former senior United Nations official in Burma.
“It’s not going to happen overnight and it can only happen if the military accepts to be brought under civilian control, given … its de facto authority and power.”
Burma’s existing constitution, drawn up by the junta, guarantees the military a quarter of seats in parliament, control of three security ministries and a constitutional veto.
Rocking the Boat
NLD representatives were meeting or calling army officers “two or three times” a week, the official said. Both mid- and high-ranking party members were involved in the talks.
“They [the military] are nervous. They want to know that we won’t rock the boat,” said the official.
Zaw Htay, a senior official in the president’s office, supported the dialogue.
“Trust and cooperation are based on understanding. So both sides need to talk to each other directly without using a third person,” he said.
Suu Kyi’s new cabinet will be streamlined to include less than 25 ministries from 36 now, according to the NLD source.
Ministerial and presidential candidates, still under debate among top NLD leaders, will be announced just before the start of the new parliament on Feb. 1, he added.
The NLD does not plan to retain any ministers from the current administration due to political opposition, although the relative lack of experience in government among the NLD leadership is a cause for concern.
“We are worried that our people have little or no experience in actual governance,” said the official.
The government will include at least one member of the USDP, however, a move welcomed by the office of President Thein Sein, who has led Burma since 2011 and introduced a series of reforms.
“It’s a good thing,” said Zaw Htay. “The NLD is the winner, but they do not want to take it all. It’s a positive step for national reconciliation.”
MANDALAY — An ambitious restoration of Mandalay’s Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung Monastery looks set to resume in February, following lengthy delays in the supply of teak pillars needed to repair the building’s terrace.
The project, which was initially supposed to take two years to complete, began in February 2014 as a collaboration between Burma’s Ministry of Culture, the US Embassy and US-based NGO World Monuments Fund (WMF).
Jeff Allen, a program director at WMF told The Irrawaddy that the estimated 30 teak logs have been “made available,” and the group will retrieve them from Loikaw, in Karenni State, this weekend. The delays will have a minor impact on the project timeline, he added.
Allen said the full extent of the work has yet to be fully assessed, making a completion date difficult to estimate. Some parts of the structure will need to be replaced completely, while others simply need repair.
“We don’t know exactly how many pillars have decayed yet,” he said.”Moreover, most of the staircases are full of termites and we still don’t know if they will need to be replaced.”
Allen said a team has already begun working on pest control, improving the drainage system and reinforcing masonry on the stairwells of the ancient monastery.
The Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung Monastery, also known as the Golden Palace Monastery, was originally a royal chamber of Burma’s King Mindon and was first located inside the Mandalay Palace compound. It was originally covered with gold leaf, inside and out, with glass mosaics inside. Wood carvings illustrating Buddhist myths stretched from ceiling to floor.
After King Mindon passed away, his son, King Thibaw, moved it out of the palace compound to become a monastery. It is the only apartment of the royal palace to survive the aerial bombardment of Mandalay during World War II, when most of the historic buildings of Mandalay Palace were razed to the ground.
Myanmar’s incoming government will work hard to build peace with separatist ethnic armies left out of a cease-fire agreement signed in October, National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech at the opening of a peace conference held in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday.
“We are ready to work for a lasting peace according to the mandate that the people gave us,” said Suu Kyi whose party swept national polls in a landslide victory Nov. 8 and will form a new government sometime early this year.
“We urgently need national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi said, taking part for the first time in peace talks in Myanmar. “We can’t build a long-term peace without it.”
“In the past, we attained our independence [from colonial power Britain] by working together with all ethnic groups,” Suu Kyi said, adding, “We can’t build a real democratic federal union now unless all ethnic groups work together with understanding, trust, and love for each other.”
Nearly 800 people took part in the first day of the planned three-day meeting, including representatives from Myanmar’s government and military, political parties, and armed ethnic groups, sources said.
Speaking as the conference opened, outgoing Myanmar president Thein Sein called the gathering an important step forward in building peace in the formerly military-ruled Southeast Asian nation.
“We will gather facts and information from our discussions and carry them forward to another peace conference to be held during the new government’s term in office,” Thein Sein said.
“For now, we can say that we are building a good foundation for the next conference,” he said.