Exceeding all expectations, including its own, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has said it has won at least 43 of the 45 seats in Sunday’s by-polls, including in the administrative capital, Naypyitaw.
Speaking briefly outside her headquarters on Monday morning, Ms. Suu Kyi hailed it as the ‘triumph of the people’, and hoped this would mark ‘the beginning of a new era’. Supporters continued to swarm the party office to celebrate the moment, which many said they would remember for the rest of their lives.
But sitting in the same office, an 85-year old man, who has witnessed all the highs and lows of his country’s history for over seven decades, was far more restrained, refusing to accept even congratulatory wishes. U Tin Oo – a former general turned democracy warrior, NLD patron, and Ms. Suu Kyi’s closest political advisor, said, “No congratulations right now. This is a small flicker of light, a slight opening. There is a long way to go for democracy, freedom and human rights.”
In an exclusive 40 minute conversation with The Hindu, Mr. Oo spelt out the key priorities and challenges that lie ahead.
Identifying rule of law as the major agenda, he said, “Many laws in the country were framed during repressive times, and these are not consistent with the present times. We need to change it.”
As examples, he cited the 1950 Emergency Provision Act; laws which allow arrest of individuals without trial; the Illegal Organisations Act; Electronics Act which curtailed free access to the Internet, as well impaired the ability of young professionals to work without hindrance; and provisions which enabled the military to recruit forced labour for big projects in the name of ‘voluntarism’.
He added, “Our judiciary is also notoriously bad. It is not independent at all, and former generals become judges. This needs to be reformed as well.”
Peace with the ethnic communities was next on the party agenda, said Mr. Oo. “Without peace, there can be no prosperity. There is an armed conflict in the border areas, and nationalities have raised their voice. Our party is committed to addressing their demands of equality, real federalism, and right to self determination.” He also urged the ethnic groups – some armed, and many in the parliament – to have faith in Ms. Suu Kyi and claimed she has already reached out to them.
The NLD would also work to change the 2008 constitution, which Mr. Oo said was not in accordance with democracy. “Twenty-five per cent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military. The president is also indirectly chosen by the military through its representatives in legislature. Instead of being scrutinized by parliament, the defence and security expenditure is not accounted for at all. And the army can take power at any point it wants. All of this must change.”
And finally, economy would rank high on the NLD’s priorities in parliament. The senior leader emphasised that lifting people out of poverty was their main aim. And this would require progressive legislation, including formation of trade unions, minimum wages act, women wages act, and the social welfare act.
When asked how the NLD planned to push its reform agenda given it would have less than ten per cent of the parliamentary seats, the party’s strategist highlighted a multi-pronged approach. “One, we will work with the ethnic nationalities and other parties who are in parliament. We have already supported their agenda, and this can be a good alliance.”
NLD, he added, would also push to expand the frontiers of the free press, and this would help in generating popular pressure.
Most importantly though, Mr. Oo said, they would seek to change the ‘military mindset’ of the government, and convince even ruling party MPs about need for further reform. “Even in Naypyitaw which is the government’s citadel – and very prestigious for them – NLD has won. They must respect popular sentiment.”
When asked if the verdict could have the opposite effect – of worrying the government about its waning political control and emboldening hardliners in the army who did not like reforms – Mr. Oo responded, “I don’t think so. In India, people love their soldiers. Here, they hate the soliders. The rulers have to now recognise the will of the people and change. I am cautiously optimistic.”
Speaking about The Lady, with whom he works very closely, Mr. Oo said Ms. Suu Kyi would take the struggle forward. “She lived in a democratic country like India; she received excellent education. She is a relentless advocate of freedom and human rights; has the physical, mental and moral courage; and is now highly experienced politically. Her dream is to complete her father’s task – and win the second independence struggle for her people.”