In an interview with Myanmar Now, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy chairman discusses the upcoming election, political cooperation and rivalry, and the ongoing negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire.
KhunTunOo, 72, is an ethnic Shan politician and leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), one of the largest parties in Shan State. He spent many years in prison for his political activities after the SNLD, known locally as the Tiger Head Party, was one of the major winners in the parliamentary elections in 1990, the results of which were ignored by the military government.
KhunTunOo and his party boycotted the flawed 2010 general elections, but on Nov. 8 they will contest in Shan State, Kayah State and Mandalay Region, with the aim of securing 46 Lower House, 14 Upper House and 96 regional legislature seats. The party leader himself decided not to run in the polls.
In a recent interview with Myanmar Now reporter HtetKhaung Linn, KhunTunOo talked about the elections, the federalist aspirations of Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between ethnic armed groups and the government.
Question: Why did you decide not to run in the elections though your party is contesting many constituencies in Shan State?
Answer: Many of our party representatives will be in parliament. For me, I would like to work in tandem with other political forces that are working outside of parliamentary politics. Constitutional reform is something that all political forces – those working inside and outside the parliament – have to work on by collaborating with each other. Efforts within parliament to strive towards that have recently failed. So, I believe that we have to find a way to work outside the parliamentary framework in cooperation with other political forces to achieve that [reform].
Q: What is your perspective on cooperating with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) in this election and beyond?
A: We used to work together with the NLD. We even joined the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament formed by the NLD in 1998 [as the army ignored the 1990 election results]. The cooperation with the NLD benefited us. Some NLD leaders even recently informed me that the party won’t field candidates in areas where we are contesting in light of our comradeship. I was grateful for that as it is inappropriate for the NLD to take it all, since this would generate misunderstanding on the part of the ethnic parties. The NLD might do well to take the UNA [United Nationalities Alliance, a coalition of 12 ethnic parties] into account; my advice for the NLD is to collaborate with the UNA in the future.
Q: But the NLD said it is now contesting in all ethnic constituencies, including those in Shan State. What do you think of that decision?
A: That’s part of being a democracy. If we say ‘you can’t come and compete in our areas because we want no rival,’ then that is not genuine democracy. We also need to care about the public’s freedom to choose [a party]. We need to open up choices for the public. There are many [ethnic politicians] who tend to complain about the NLD’s plan to compete in their areas. But nobody is blaming the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the same way.
I am not defending the NLD. It is imperative that honest and qualified leaders emerge and work for our country. I don’t wish to say who should and should not run in a particular area. Even if our party wins in an area, it wouldn’t do much if the elected legislator representing us is not on a par with the legislators of other parties in terms of qualifications. We need to have genuine competition and respect the public’s choice.
Q: How do you think SNLD will fare in the election compared to your main rival, Shan Nationalities for Democratic Party (SNDP)?
A: The SNDP is our main rival in Shan State, where we we are contesting 50 parliamentary seats. Even though we did not compete in the 2010 and 2012 elections, we’ve started organisational activities three years ago. I don’t wish to criticise other parties but as far as we’ve gauged, we stand very well in the public opinion. Another thing is we’ve never been embroiled in financial scandals and never had a bad reputation. That’s why about 10 active MPs representing the other party (SNDP) left theirs and joined our party – as did ordinary members of that party. Unlike the other party, we don’t require the party candidates to give $4,000 or so in compensation to the party if they were to switch to another party.
Q: Recently, Shwe Mann was purged as USDP chairman by President Thein Sein in a nighttime incident involving armed police forces. What’s your view of this development?
A: I don’t wish to comment on the party’s internal divisions, but I would like to say the procedures undertaken [during the purge] are wrong. [Shwe Mann] is the speaker of the Union Parliament while [his rival] is the president of the country. What is the point of security forces surrounding the party’s headquarters? Were there people inside the party headquarters armed with sticks and swords, or exchanging gunfire, so much so that the police needed to intervene?
The allegation against [Shwe Mann] was that he was forging an alliance with the opposition [NLD] party. It’s quite natural for parties to ally with each other because there are no rules barring that. Everyone one wonders what kind of democracy we are having when you order the speaker of parliament to stay inside his home. After observing this incident, the ethnic armed groups will think twice about signing ceasefire deals with the government as they can consider what might happen to them later.
Q: So far, five armed ethnic groups have declared that they would like to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord with the government, while other groups have been hesitant. What do you think will happen in the ceasefire process?
A: My understanding is that the nationwide ceasefire agreement must be all-inclusive. If the groups signs the deal then all other groups should follow suit. That was the consensus the armed ethnic groups achieved in the Laiza conference [in Kachin State in 2014] and Law KheeLah base conference in Karen State.
Now it seems that six ethnic armed groups haven’t decided whether to sign it, while fighting still continues between government forces and smaller armed ethnic groups like the Kokang, Arakan Army and Ta’ang (Palaung) and Lahu. If these groups are not signing the ceasefire agreement, then it calls into question how lasting the peace would be. To me, I find no issue at all with all these armed groups coming onboard to sign the ceasefire agreement with the government. We have experienced all the discriminatory tactics [of the government]. So, we need to allow a small armed group, even if it is formed with just 50 people, to sign the ceasefire too. [Editor’s note: The government is refusing to let some armed groups sign as they are considered too small, or still actively fighting the army.]
Q: There are a number of pro-government People’s Militias in Shan State. Would they pose challenges to the political parties, including yours, during the campaign period and on election day?
A: First, our party has no relation with these groups. As far as I know, these groups are not opposed to our policies. During a recent campaign visit in the town of Kalaw in Kayah State, a People’s Militia group there heartily welcomed us into their office and expressed support for our demands for greater equality among all ethnic groups.
Q: Currently, some ethnic armed groups are relying on natural resources in their areas. What is your opinion on sharing revenues of natural resources in the ethnic areas after a ceasefire is signed? How can it be done?
A: The parliamentary proposal on this topic of decentralisation and distribution of natural resources did not win support. Some ethnic MPs called for power decentralisation and a system of sharing [revenues from] natural resources, 75 percent of which would be for local ethnic groups and the remaining 25 percent for the central government. The proposal was a failure.
Forests have been wiped out, leaving nothing for the locals. That has been the case in both Kachin and Shan states. The same happened in the mining sector – gold mines and gems mines [are being depleted]. This will continue to create discontent among the local populations. The focal point is to amend the 2008 constitution [to improve resource sharing], as the ethnic people bear the brunt of [resource exploitation].
Q: If the ruling USDP party managed to form a government after the November elections, what would this mean for the federalist aspirations of the ethnic groups?
A: If that is the outcome, then it would be challenging to hope for a federal union. The idea of forming a federal army would not translate into reality, nor can we achieve a genuine federal system. The federal system we will end up with may be “Burmese-style” federalism – we have already seen what “Burmese-style socialism” and “Burmese-style democracy” looks like. If there won’t be the genuine federal union that the ethnic people have demanded, fighting would resume, undeterred by any sort of ceasefire agreement.
Q: It seems that the incumbent President Thein Sein is hoping for a second term. What do you think of his attempt to stay in power and what would it mean for Myanmar?
A: The military representatives [25 percent of the legislature] might nominate him as a presidential candidate. But the country remains plagued by corruption and the legal system is still fragile. President Thein Sein did not manage to tackle these problems. A host of other issues, like land grabs, political prisoners, detained students and environmental problems, pose great challenges to the country. It’s time for all of us to contemplate how to achieve lasting peace. All these issues weren’t resolved and even worsened during the past five years under the rule of President Thein Sein
This interview was originally published on September 4, 2015 on the website of Myanmar Now
By HTET KHAUNG LINN / Myanmar Now