Thura U Shwe Mann is currently chairman of the Union Parliament Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission and a man who has been intimately involved in Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to a quasi-democracy, an ongoing process.
Myo Thant of Mizzima TV recently sat down with him to discuss his work, the work of the government, and the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
Mr. Chairman, thank you very much indeed for giving us this interview. Your commission has been in operation for three years. My first question is what are the functions and work of your commission? Please tell us something about this.
Yes, our commission has been in over two years and now it has entered the third year. The Union Parliament formed this commission by issuing a notification. The first work of this commission is to study and review the existing laws and send its observations and recommendations to the Union Parliament if there are laws which need to be amended or repealed or there is a need to enact new laws to replace the existing laws. The second function of our commission is to update the existing laws to keep in harmony with the current era. And the third function of our commission is to report and give recommendations to the Union Parliament and the institutions concerned if it thinks the matter is a special matter for the country and its people. Our commission was able to almost fully fulfil these functions and obligations.
How do you review and judge the performance of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party and ruling government which has been in power for three years since you yourself Mr. Chairman served the country in leading posts for many years?
I see the ruling NLD government is doing its work amidst great difficulties. They are facing problems and difficulties some of which are expected and some are unexpected. And some of them are unprecedented problems. So I am satisfied with the performance of this young government. And as an individual, some might have satisfaction and some might have dissatisfaction with this government.
You said this government is doing its work with great difficulty and is facing many difficulties. If you were in their shoes, Mr. Chairman, what would you do to resolve these challenges and difficulties as a statesman?
I can answer this question on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, they have to handle great difficulties. The main difficulty in this transition period is changing the mindset and behaviour of the people. I’d like to say they are performing their duties with great difficulties while they are facing some unexpected problems of an unchanged mindset and behaviour in this transition period. She faced another problem of betrayal to the Union by some while trying to change the mindset and behaviour of some. So I’d like to say she is doing her work with great difficulty.
After Htin Kyaw, President Win Myint assumed the office. They are your successors. People felt frustration with the performance of former President Htin Kyaw. And they felt after President Win Myint took charge of the office they have some hope for him. So what is your comment and how do you judge the performance of new President Win Myint?
Win Myint is a politician and he is also an advocate. In the previous term of the parliament, he served as the chairman of an important parliament affairs committee. And in the second term of the parliament, he served as the speaker of the House of Representatives (lower house) and so he has rich experience and he has a high calibre in this work. So I’d like to say we can have hope and great expectations for him as long as he serves the country faithfully and he performs his duties efficiently.
Our country entered a transition period after Aung San Suu Kyi and her party contested in the 2011-12 by-elections. And they won a landslide victory in the 2015 general elections. You and Aung San Suu Kyi worked closely in this period. She might have had discussions with you after winning the election with regard to power-sharing such as how many persons from the previous regime would be included in the new cabinet. Did you have such discussions?
Yes, this issue deserves to be raised. Power sharing is important in politics. I consider participating in a new administration based on how I can serve the country and how I can help the development of the country rather than sharing posts and positions. And also I considered how my colleagues could work in which places rather than asking the new administration for this post and that post that must be given to us. I just gave suggestions to the new administration based on their requests and offers and told them which would be the best solution for filling the posts and positions of the departments concerned and cabinet.
So you had close discussions and deliberations with Aung San Suu Kyi, say in cooperation or coordination or consultation. What difficulties did you have in this work?
Yes, these may exist as the people are different, the parties are different, the policies are different and the experiences are different. So we will have different views and opinions. If we have a self-righteous attitude and a holier-than-thou attitude we will have difficulties in doing things together, cooperating together. So we sat together and discussed what to do, what we should do and how to make change through sharing each other’s opinions and views. But after the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi took power we are no more the decision-makers and such is the case with our organization. So we just present our correct and complete observations and recommendations to them on our review and analysis but we never think our opinions and recommendations are perfect and always correct. We will be happy they take our opinions and recommendations in doing their work and adopting their policies and it doesn’t matter if they do not take our opinions and recommendations. Our attitude is to do our work with the best and the most appropriate decisions.
You had close relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and you worked with her through coordination and consultations. You visited Senior General Than Shwe for a smooth transfer of power (after the general election results had been announced). Please tell us how did your effort contribute to the smooth transfer of power and how did your effort push for a peaceful transfer of power?
In this regard, I’d like to say it contributed much in pushing and smoothing the transfer of power because Aung San Suu Kyi made a very courteous and delicate approach to retired Senior General Than Shwe and also, he made constructive responses to her. For instance, he said to us that we must recognize Aung San Suu Kyi as state leader now and we must help her in leading the country. Moreover, he said to us that we must continue our recognition of her if she was reelected in the 2020 general elections. These words were very constructive and they made a smooth transition of power and they pushed for such a smooth transition of power. The cetena (benevolence) of retired senior general Than Shwe could be seen clearly in these words. And also, this showed us the noble-minded Aung San Suu Kyi. So they assumed that this work was very good.
After the NLD took power two important issues arose, the first one concerns Rakhine affairs and the other one is the peace process. The Rakhine affair is not an easy job and it must be tackled with great effort and difficulty. And people have frustration over the peace conference and peace process. It developed into the 21st Century Panglong Conference, though it could not produce substantial results. Mr. Chairman, can you give suggestions on these two issues by reviewing them?
As for the Rakhine affairs, if someone, not Daw Suu, was in this leadership position, I assume that this situation may have been much worse. In the peace talks and peace process also, it has been tried to be resolved for many years but satisfactory results have never been achieved. We were not satisfied with our result also when we were in power. We had got in-depth involvement in this process. If you ask me today if we are satisfied and feel success with this peace process, my answer is no. But we must say it is not too bad. We must say there is progress in this process. The previous government started this process, laid the foundation stone of this process and sowed this seed of peace and the incumbent government continued to walk on this road. So there is some progress in it. We can build mutual understanding through the meetings and deliberations. We could have an understanding of ethnic people. We could understand the ethnic armed forces. They could understand the Tatmadaw (government military). We could understand the people. The words they said and the opinions they voiced showed these understandings. We could achieve some results in reaching agreement in the second Panglong Conference and in the third conference too, we could achieve some agreements to some extent because of these understandings, though we could not achieve any result in the security sector. But it is very natural to see non-achievement in this security sector which needs careful consideration and sensible thoughts. But they could prepare for the next steps for the advancement in this process, though it seems like there is no progress and no forward steps. So I think this process should be continued with great patience and tolerance.
This question is personal. Our journalists covered with interest that fateful night on August 12, 2015, when you were the chairman of ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). So please tell us what happened on that night as much as you can?
Frankly saying, I would not like to talk about this incident. These things were sorrowful rather than personal. On the other hand, we can learn some lessons from this incident. I will talk about only the main topic as I don’t want to say other things. On that fateful night on August 12, 2015, I didn’t go to the office. And at midnight I heard that security forces surrounded our party headquarters building and some ministers and some chief ministers entered the building and they stayed there that night. And I heard that the persons on duty in this building were not allowed to go out and also they banned the staff and responsible persons outside the party headquarters from entering the building. I knew only these things on that night. And then I realized that something was wrong and something had happened. And then I went to bed. And at about 4 or 5 o’clock in the early morning, the doorman came and gave me a letter. I opened the envelope and found that it was addressed to me and Htay Oo. The content of the letter was about disunity and infighting among party top leaders. The cause of rift among top leaders was a concentration of power in two of us who were acting as joint vice-chairman. The party had to obey the command given by these two people which meant the party had a lack of democracy, the letter accused. And another accusation in this letter was a lack of transparency in spending party funds. And another big issue and accusation in this letter was moving a motion in parliament for enacting the right to recall law. They said that under these circumstances and in this bad image of the party, our USDP party might lose in the coming general elections. The letter said I would be removed from the chairman post and I would be replaced by Vice-Chairman Htay Oo. The letter was signed by the party chairman.
I was so sad and upset about this incident. If they even wanted to do these things, our party has regulations and procedures. There were ways to do these things but they didn’t exercise these intra-party democratic rights in the party. I felt sorry for party and country as they did not obey these democratic principles in the party. The party top leaders did these things in an undemocratic way with undemocratic thought though the party was leading the country in building the democratic union. So I felt very sorry and was upset. I felt sorry not for myself but for the country. And as you know what happened to our party in the 2015 general elections. The letter claimed that they had to do these things for winning in the elections. What was the result of this? Did we win or lose? All of those were sorrowful. We could learn many lessons from this incident. Let bygones be bygones. Anyway, we did what we had to do for the people and country by putting aside our personal feelings and swallowing bitter feelings. We must hold elections, convene parliament in accordance with the election result, forming a government by this parliament in accordance with the people’s mandate. This was what we had in our mind at that time. I am very much reluctant to answer your question. I don’t want to answer this question as I had a guilty feeling for the country and our people.
After this incident, you became the chairman of this parliament commission. From an outsider’s view, I think the relationship between you and appointed Tatmadaw MPs is not so good and smooth. What about the relationship between you and some of these Tatmadaw leaders?
Ko Myo Thant, I have no problem in relation with the Tatmadaw. We have a good and cordial relationship among us. I have deep feeling and attachment to the Tatmadaw and Tatmadaw also has an understanding with me because I am the one who served in the Tatmadaw for the longest period. Since as a cadet in the academy I served in the Tatmadaw longer than any other from graduation in 1965 to 2010. I have much attachment to the Tatmadaw as I stayed so long in it. I have great respect for all the soldiers and I have a full understanding of them. So I have no problem with the Tatmadaw. The superficial view of our relationship will be different from the actual inner view but because of what some people said there were misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding this. Some might deliberately create this situation. Anyway one can see the true situation if they can see it in a combination of head and heart.
You had ambition to become President one day. And you wished to serve the people and country with the post higher than President if any. As far as we know and hear you have a plan to form a party and contest in the elections. Is this true? Please tell us your aspirations and expectations beyond 2020.
I want to answer your question with my counter question. With what intention you ask this question? Do you ask this question to know if I have this intention to form a party and contest an election or don’t you want me to form this party and contest the election? Though the question is same the intention of the questioner is different from each other. As I asked you before, what is your intention in asking this question? Do you want or don’t you want me to form the party? Only the asker may know this answer. I said these words just for the seriousness of this question.
I time and again said I was ready anytime for the interests of the country and our people as long as I am fit and healthy to serve them in any position, anywhere. It will be the best if I can serve my people and country in the position and place where I can do so efficiently and correctly. So I once said I’d like to serve as President if this post could be done efficiently for the people and the country. Similarly, if a post higher than President can do more efficiently for people and country I’d like to serve in this post too. This is what I once said. I said these words based on my sincere wish of serving the interests of people and country efficiently and correctly. If you ask this question today I’ll give you the same answer. As you said before, if this news of forming a party by me is widely being circulated among the people, I’ll say I am ready to do anything if it is needed for the interest of the people and the country because our wish and aim is to serve the people and the country. I hope you will be satisfied with my answer.
Since the NLD contested the elections, they have time and again said that their ultimate goal was to amend the constitution. How much closer are they to reaching this goal? Has the road leading to this goal opened? How much expectation should we hold of them reaching this goal?
This is their strategic choice. Since they did not disclose some matters exactly we just know they are trying to do this job. We cannot say on this matter exactly as they did not disclose verbally in which state they have reached in this regard. But in the slogans of their ultimate goal; rule of law, peace, amending the constitution and establishing a federal democratic union are always included so that we can say they are at least trying to do this job.
If you ask me this question we too tried to amend the constitution. So we had had such incidents because of our attempt to amend the constitution. As I wrote in my book, amending the constitution is for the people and the country, not for me and not for Aung San Suu Kyi. So I’d like to say the work which is needed to do this for the people and country should be done in the correct and appropriate way.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I have nothing more to say as it is almost conclusive of all matters. The most important thing for us is loyalty to our people and country. Loyalty to the people and country is the best and most glorious and splendid thing so that we need to be faithful to our country and people and we must never betray them. As for a man, loyalty to an organization is not as glorious as loyalty to the people and the country. I’d like to convey this message in this interview.