Declares reforms ‘irreversible’; asks for lifting of sanctions
On a day when the Myanmar president Thein Sein termed Sunday’s by-elections “successful”, his key aide said the results reflected the people’s desire for “change”, and welcomed the emergence of a strong opposition as good for democracy. In one of the first reactions by a high-ranking official after the polls, the President’s chief political advisor, Ko Ko Hlaing, told The Hindu on Tuesday that the reforms process was “irreversible” and appealed to the international community to lift sanctions.
Explaining the landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, Mr. Hlaing said, “For many years, people have seen old faces. They wanted change, to taste a new cuisine. Politics, especially elections, is based on emotions of the people. And the emotional mood was for NLD.” He added that Ms. Suu Kyi’s personality was a major factor in the victory. “She is not just a politician. She is a celebrity and has star power, which helped the party’s candidates.”
The overwhelming NLD victory — official count now says they have won 40 of the 45 seats — has led to speculation that it could embolden the military “hardliners” sceptical of the democratic reforms. Yangon political circles are abuzz with rumours that they could cite it as proof of waning political control and stall change. While conceding that there were internal differences, Mr. Hlaing sought to allay any such apprehensions.
He said, “It is quite usual to have differences about pace and speed of reforms. That is why it requires clever management. Sometimes, reforms have to be rapid. Sometimes, a more cautious approach is needed. It has to be negotiated between the government and legislature, within the government.”
But Mr. Hlaing emphasised that the results would help reforms and make the democracy more mature. “In any election, there will be winners and losers. One has to accept the results. This is a wake up call for parties which have lost. They should review the failure, take lessons, and get ready for the 2015 elections.” He added that a democracy required a ‘strong opposition’, and the by-poll results would now lead to ‘more open and active’ discussions in parliament where NLD could raise any issue.
Asked if a Constitutional amendment removing the reserved seats for the military in parliament — a key NLD plank — was possible, Mr. Hlaing said military was in parliament to play a “balancing role, and for national interest and national security”. In a measured tone, he added, “If the opposition can convince them that amendment is in national interest, they will support it. In the past year and a half, the military representatives have often voted with the opposition on issues.”
The President’s confidante added that the elections had helped fulfil the aim of having an “inclusive parliament” with all parties. The next item on the reform agenda was “peace and reconciliation with the ethnic groups”. Several ethnic groups are represented in parliament, but there are others — especially in the northern Kachin State – who are waging an armed movement for federalism and right to self determination. The government has insisted on a ceasefire before political discussions, while the Kachin Independence Organisation has demanded political settlement before a ceasefire.
‘Need carrot, not stick’
Declaring that the reforms were “irreversible”, the senior official appealed to the outside world for “assistance and encouragement” to help Myanmar meet challenges. In a categorical call to remove sanctions, Mr. Hlaing said, “Sanctions are a great barrier for reforms. The international community should know we have changed our game. It is an elected government committed to reform. We don’t need any pressure from outside. The need is not for sticks and whips, but for carrots.”
Revealing that the European Union, Australia and Canada had shown eagerness to relax restrictions, Mr. Hlaing said, “I know U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted overnight since the sanction regime is complex and needs to go through Congress. But we hope for some relaxations.” He added that Myanmar needed “capacity building, technical assistance, capital, technology, skills, and investment”.
He also identified areas of mutual co-operation with India which is “an old and close friend”.
“India can use our deep sea ports to export to Thailand, China and other Southeast Asian countries. It can use our infrastructure to deliver supplies and logistics to its own Northeast. India can help us with technology, skills, education system and legal regime where we have a lot in common. Myanmar needs foreign investment, and people here have a long tradition of using Indian goods,” he said.
Urging Indian investors to explore business opportunities in Myanmar, he said, “If you hesitate now, it may be too late.”