Union Election Commission head U Tin Aye recently visited Mizzima Media Studios for an interview to discuss the November elections and the role of his organization.
Mizzima: First of all I’d like to congratulate your election commission for successfully conducting the 2015 general elections. So how do you review the 2015 general elections when you look back?
U Tin Aye: In my review of the 2015 general elections, I see it as a successful election because we had no problems at all throughout this election. And all the political parties accepted the election results. And the transition to a new government has been going smoothly, so I see the entire election process as successful. I let observers watch and monitor our elections too. In their remarks and opinions given by both domestic and foreign observers, most of them spoke much about the advantages (good points) saying there were very few weaknesses. Similarly, the outside world saw our general elections as a success so I’d like to say our general elections were concluded successfully.
In my review, I spoke about different levels and stages. Our commission could not hold this successful election alone. It was successful because of the efforts of all; parties, media, and the people. I invited observers to monitor our elections, especially from ASEAN countries. In their assessments, they gave similar positive comments. They said our elections had more advantages than weaknesses. The elections were stable, peaceful and transparent. So I see the general elections as successful and I recognize the people’s involvement and cooperation in it.
You say there were strong points and weak points in these general elections. What were the weak points?
In fact, the real weaknesses in our elections were in the framework, procedures and awareness in them. In fact, we had to make preparations in the pre-election period for the successful completion of the general election. So our commission must do this in accordance with the legal framework. I reread the laws and rules of elections as soon as I assumed the office of chairman of the Union Election Commission. And then I made drafts of necessary amendments and modifications. Then I presented these amendments and modifications to the political parties. I collected opinions and comments from them on these amendments and modifications. After collecting these opinions and comments from them, I made necessary modifications accordingly. The parliament made the laws and I made the rules and procedures. And I gave necessary guidance and directives too.
However, the political parties and people especially the media were not aware of the work and preparations we did and they criticized us harshly. If they gave their criticism of us positively, they would provide a positive contribution to our elections. It would have been cooperation with us. But when they wrote about us in their presumption and prejudice without knowing the (legal) framework, many looked down on our election commission. This is my point of view. It is not the blame game. We were inexperienced. Even the general elections held in 1955, 1956 and 1960, were not perfect elections but held in chaotic periods or insurrection. They could not have been held in accordance with the objective of the elections. The people had to vote without having proper objectives in these tumultuous periods. As did those during the 1990 general elections. It could not have been held systematically. And the 2010 general elections were held in the same manner. We did not have enough knowledge on how to conduct successful elections. So in my opinion, our weaknesses are based on the lack of such knowledge.
When you led these general elections, did you have any work which you really wanted to do, that should have been done, but you could not do?
I have to say, the main point is the election commission. When I assumed office, I thought that we must have strong supporting staff and organization to achieve our mission of holding elections every five years. When I looked back at my organization, I had less than 100 staff. In fact, we had only six eminent and respected people and nine departmental staff. So we did not have a strong organization or a solid foundation. So I wished, during my tenure, to have a strong organization with a considerable strength of staff in different levels of the commission across the country. So I presented the new set-up of the election commission to the government. The government permitted it and I did accordingly. But I could not form all levels of my commission. I could form only States/Regional level and District level. I could not form township level election commissions with our own staff or wards and village-tracts levels. I requested the government to give sanction to my proposed new set-up of the commission. I presented to the government that I must have a strong and solid organization to conduct the elections successfully. I proposed to the government that I would use mainly existing staff in the government machinery because of the constraints of the allocated budget. And then the government permitted me to do so. After getting permission I wrote letters and sent them to all ministries to let their officers and staff know we wanted them to fill vacancies in our commission. I invited all of them to serve in our commission. We told them we had these posts and those posts, how many vacant deputy directors’ posts, how many vacant staff officer posts etc. First no ministry sent their officers or staff to our commission. And then the Ministry of Defence sent their officers to us. And then we got staff and officers from Ministry of Industry when that ministry was dissolved. So I could fill the vacancies in our commission at State/Region level with officers transferred from other ministries. Some of them reached township commission level. I could not form township level election commission offices until now. The Public Service Commission (PSC) conducted a test for new recruits for our commission in January this year. After announcing the written results, the successful candidates were given a personal interview. The PSC will announce the final results and all the successful candidates will be sent to training course in Phaunggyi, Yangon Region.
Upon completion of their training, we will issue their postings. So the work which should have been done including the township level commission offices and those at ward and village-tract levels will be done. As I said to you before, in fact, the grassroots levels must have a solid and strong foundation. Because of the lack of such a solid and strong foundation at the grassroots level organizational structure, they did not have necessary knowledge, experience and awareness expecially so we had some weaknesses in the recent elections.
You had to rely only on volunteers at the grassroots levels, right?
Yes, I had to rely only on volunteers at the grassroots level. In fact, we needed only two strong staff at the grassroots level. At the township level, we had only six staff. According to our sanctioned new set-up, we could appoint only 75% of the required and sanctioned strength. It means we could appoint only four. It would be okay if these four staff could do well. But we did not have such capable staff. So it was an awkward situation for us. So you may ask me how you did you do your work. I worked with six persons and nine appointed persons at the township level. These six volunteers, who are respected by the people, wanted to work but they did not have the authority. As for the nine appointed departmental staff, they had authority but they concentrated on the work of their mother units. So the role of our commission disappeared. So we had weaknesses at the grassroots level. And you might ask me if you had such weaknesses how could you do this work successfully? I realized this situation very early. So I emphasized training. I gave them crash courses with vinyl (flex banners) posters, pamphlets and manuals. I told them to read training aids and handouts before the training. Then I gave them crash courses just one week before the polling date. So the elections could be held smoothly and successfully though we had a lot of weaknesses they were not big enough to jeopardize the elections.
You said you encountered a trust deficit in your commission by the people especially by the media. How did you overcome this trust deficit?
Trust should be judged on actions. Conclusions should be made on our actions. These actions or those actions are not in accordance with the laws. These actions are contrary to the principles. These actions have bias. The people should respond like that. The judgment should not be made on a personal level. The people should not have prejudice and preconceived ideas. But the people thought this person came from the military, so he would not be neutral. So this was a misjudgment and misconception. So I wish people would judge a person on his actions. If he does good things, he will be a good person. And he will be a bad person if he does bad things. This will be the correct judgment. I have never judged anyone before seeing his actions. It does not mean I trust him or I can’t trust him. I judge him only after seeing his actions. I don’t think goodness or badness will be permanent.
Human nature is a mixture of good and bad but if the goodness is more than the badness I shall recognize him as a good man. But after being recognized as a good man, he should maintain good virtue. I assess and judge men this way. But throughout my career people judged my trustworthiness based on my past, not on my actions. [They say] He served as Chief of Staff so he must be a crook. He was once a USDP party member so he must be a crook. The effects on me were so bad when people judged me on my past not on my actions. If these conclusions only affected the man and his personal life, it would not be so bad, but the impact was on the organization which is an important institution in our country. So people could not have trust in the institution and it was difficult to work. Some foreign ambassadors once told me to counter these attacks and they said to me that they had media and I could use them in defending my position and attitude. I replied, ‘I don’t mind, I would not counter their attacks’. I firmly believe in truth and I am working for truth. Please guage my work and actions within the law. If what I do is contraray to the law or violating the law. Please point out to me if I have made mistakes in violating the law. If they are correct, I shall make an apology. But if they makes accusations on me without knowing the law, I can do nothing for them because their accusations are not made on my actions but on my personality. So defending against such accusations would be useless. So let me repeat, trust should be based on my actions. The elections cocluded successfully as I did them in accordance with the law. Judge me and guage me based on my actions. Tell me if you think my actions are not in line with the law. I shall not hesitate to correct my mistakes and to make an apology for my mistakes. Finally the truth prevailed.
It is now over three months after the elections. What will your commission do next? And what should be done?
We are going along with the election cycle. After the elections, we must review them. We must prepare in accordance with the lifecycle of the elections. We must make preparations. They are very important. As soon as the general elections have concluded successfully, we must prepare for the 2020 general elections. In preparation, we must review what our good points are and advantages and what are our weaknesses. I told my subordinates to do so. I told them to work on our good points and maintain them and find ways to improve them. I mean the 2020 general elections are inevitable. So you could see yesterday what I said in the newspaper. Prepare for the best election in 2020. The elections must be held periodically so prepare for the next five years by reviewing the last election held in 2015. We should maintain our good points and correct our mistakes and improve on our weaknesses.
The next matter is expenses spent on election campaigns. As far as we know the deadline for submission of these expenses is February 20. So what will you do to those who do not submit their campaign expenses in time?
The candidates must maintain their accounts on campaign expenses. This provision is in the Penal Code also (not only in election law). The candidates must maintain these accounts otherwise, they will be punished. We posted this form on our website. The candidates must submit their expenses spent during the 45-day campaign period. There are 175 candidates who failed to submit this form before the stipulated time. Both the candidates and their polling agents if any must submit their campaign expenses. So the total number who failed to submit their expenses in time is 207. District election commissions compiled these lists and sent them to our union election commission office through the State/Region election commission offices concerned. We invited them and heard their cases. The hearings of these cases are still underway and not yet complete. The judgments have been pronounced in some cases but they are not final. We will hear these cases again with election commission (full bench). After the final verdicts, those who failed to submit their campaign expenses in the stipulated time will be disqualified and these disqualified candidates for the next elections will be listed in Burma Gazette. After being listed in the gazette, he/she will not be qualified to stand for the elections during the stipulated time. Originally, in the last term of parliament, those persons can stand for by-elections. But now we have amended the rule and they will not be qualified to stand in by-elections before the 2020 general elections. The hearings of all of these 207 cases are still underway. Upon hearing of these cases, the verdicts will be sent to me. And then we will review all of these verdicts and will make final decisions on them. If the verdicts are upheld, we will list their names as disqualified persons for elections in Burma Gazette.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) party won this election in a landslide victory. Did you expect such a landslide verdict or were you surprised by the result?
I thought the NLD would win but I did not expect the NLD to win with such a landslide. Not only me, other people did not expect such a result as far as I know. As the polling date was drawing to a close, the opinions appearing in the media might be controversial but no one expected such a result. I was surprised with this result of over 80% contested seats won [by the NLD].
What would you like to say to voters in your capacity as the Chairman of the Union Election Commission?
In fact, the people in the country desparately want change. I see this result as the people’s verdict [on the political parties]. The people want change and they voted for change. So we need to accept this result. I’d like to say to the voters, though they will not like my words and it does not fit in the current time, I think smart people should be voted in. State building can only be done if smart people are in parliament. I don’t want to say anything on the last elections. But I’d like to say to the voters for the next elections. Article 4 of the Constitution stipulates, “The sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens and is in force in the entire country.” How to enforce the sovereign power in the entire country, it is enforced by means of elections conducted periodically. The citizens confer their sovereign power to their representatives by electing them to parliament. Then these representatives exercise this sovereign power in their parliament, judiciary, and executive branches. So I want those representatives who will exercise sovereign power to be smart and competent people. If the voters only elect smart people to parliament, the parties will field smart candidates too. And the parties should conduct capacity building training for their candidates and party members. I’d like to extend my message to the voters. The election is very important for us. We need to elect smart and competent candidates to parliament. Only after that can we build our state. If these smart and competent people are not in parliament, we cannot build the state. Anyway, people’s verdicts will be final. As you know people choose the candidate in well-established democracies. They choose the candidates (not the party). They check and see their candidates if he is a womanizer, if he is a drunkard, or if he is of loose character etc. They don’t send such a candidate to parliament as their representative. They choose their candidates by thoroughly judging their personality. Similarly, they choose the party too. They choose which party should be in a dominant position in parliament. They carefully choose which party should be in a dominant position in the upper house and which party in the lower house. It is very good. All the candidates are smart and competent so they can balance their parties too. These things are very important. It is correct to say ‘People’s voice, Parliament’s voice’ but if only a single party dominates the parliament, parliament’s voice will not be the people’s voice’. This dominat single party can become a dictator. They will become a one-party dictator. So people must control and balance them. The people must choose both party and candidate. I’d like to say all of them are depending on the maturity of democracy, the level of democracy.
Was there any pressure or influence on you when the NLD won a landslide victory from an individual or an organization? For instance, when the commission announced the election results, did anyone or any organization put pressure on you?
The incumbent ruling party and government are my colleagues. We have been together for over 30 years and they know well our attitude. So they don’t have any reason to put pressure on me. They believe I did my best and tried my best to conduct this election correctly. Some did not put pressure on me but they disclosed their dislikes and discontent to me, who did what etc. I told them you could sumbit your complaint to me and I would see and make a decision on it. There was no pressure on me. But some came and told me their dislikes and discontent (on election result). I replied to them to do in accordance with the law.
In our last interview in August, we discussed the issue of political parties and their role. Mr. Chairman, you highlighted the importance of them being strong institutions. Now the election is over. Mr. Chairman, how do you see the situation of these political parties, are they becoming strong institutions? Have they achieved it?
In my opinion, the political parties still have some weaknesses. Their strong points necessary to achieve this goal are still not yet adequate because they were formed as parties not that long ago. And the number of parties is a little high. I wish the parties could become lean and strong especially ethnic parties. Their voters were split in the election as there were a lot of ethnic parties in their constituencies. What is a political party? In my opinion, the party is an organization comprised of people who want to serve the people. So these organizations need to be lean and need to be capable of serving the interests of their people, region and the state. Some parties were formed but their membership was very few. They are weak in political knowledge, political experience and other necessary skills. So we have a lot of parties but they lack capability. Some formed parties but could not organize people. I see they have weaknesses in achieving the objective of serving the people, region and state.
What would you like to say about our media? Most of the media houses received training on covering election stories only in the pre-election period. We had limitations. So how do you see the activities and work of our media during the elections?
I have nothing special to say on the media. And I should not as they have the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. So I would not like to put any restrictions on them and criticize them. Anyway, humans need to nurture themselves forever. One can say, that one lies to others but not to themselves. One knows themselves well whether I say truth or lies, whether I have bias or not in covering news. They will be judged by the people in the end. Later in our country, as you know, in well-established and mature democracies, people put high value on the media. They like media a lot. They read the news, opinions and and editorials enthusiastically. The readers get unbiased and balanced stories and opinions from the media. So it is very good [for the people]. In our country, some media wrote biased news stories. So I did not read all the journals and dailies. I read only selected ones. I told my staff not to put this journal and that daily on my desk. I did not read them. I selected the media, which ones to read and which ones to not read. My elders and seniors told me how to read the media. They told me you need not read all. You must select what should be read and what should be not. Some articles were good. I called some writers regarding the elections by phone. I once called a journalist for his article by phone. His article was good. Media is very important for the country so I don’t have anything to say on media. Thy have the right to freedom of expression and they have media freedom but I’d like to say them they should emphasize the interests of the country in covering their news.
During the election days in Naypyitaw, I saw you at a press conference, you got angry when a reporter asked you a question and you left the press conference suddenly in anger. How do you see now your manner on that day?
Yes, I got angry. It’s difficult to say, in fact, I have been very patient throughout my life (in dealing with the people) but I become uncontrollable myself whenever I go berserk. I remember that day. I said do you have anything more to ask me and then I thumped the desk and left the conference room in fury. And then postings on this incident were on facebook. I saw these postings which say I got angry. That journalist could not distinguish even the ballot box and container. He accused me of opening the sealed ballot box (on the way to the counting centre). After the counting, the ballot box is nothing, it becomes a simple container. It can be used for storing stationery and documents. I mean the number of voters in each polling station is different from one another. Some have hundreds of electors and some have thousands. So some polling stations had completed counting and some had not yet. Those polling stations which had completed their counting had to come to the township election commission office to surrender these forms and documents. They had to make a photocopy of some of these documents. So the polling booth officials visited nearby photocopy shops which were not yet closed and xeroxed some of them. After seeing this scene, the commission was accused of stealing the votes by opening the ballot box. I asked him if it was container or ballot box. This was a ballot box for absentee votes (advanced votes). It had been counted at 6 a.m. when the polling station was opened. So it was not a ballot box once it was surrendered to the polling station chief. The absentee ballot boxes which arrived at the polling station in the night between 10 and 11 o’clock after 6 p.m closing time were not valid and they could not be accepted as ballot boxes. So they were just the containers. But we were accused of opening the sealed ballot box. I asked him if it was ballot box or container. I explained to him it was just a container. And then I asked if there were any questions but no one answered. So I left the conference room after thumping the desk. The situation became awkward a little bit.
I met you in August for an interview, it was four or five months before the polling date. Let me read out what you said at that time. “For my part, the election must be free and fair because everybody is writing their own history. My track record has never been stained throughout my life and my age is in twilight now. So I would not like to record my history with black spots.” Mr. Chairman, so now do you think you have accomplished your mission of leaving a good legacy in the 2015 general elections?
I think I did my best, I did my best to make this general election free and fair. From counting the vote to spending on my commission, everything was transparent. People knew the result in the due course of time, who had won and with how many votes. As soon as the counting had finished, the result was entered in form 16 at the polling station and in form 18 at the township commission office. No one needed to ask the election results as they were announced immediately after counting. As for election spending too, no one needed to ask our spending. I instructed it to be put it on a notice board. People could lodge complaints if they were dissatisfied with this spending. I made everything transparent. Some could argue the election was rigged if the announcement of results were delayed. So I announced these results immediately. All the election results except two townships were announced within a week. These two townships are in farflung Kachin State. Even though I tried to collect these results by chopper I could not as the weather at that time was so bad. So it took three days more and I announced the results from these two townships 10 days after the polling date. Therefore, I am satisfied with my work as I could fulfill the wishes and desires of the people. This is my own assessment on me.
What would you say if you were offered this job for the next election as a chairman of the election commission? How will you reply and respond?
No, I won’t.
I’m a different type. I’m a jolly type, I want to live joyfully all the time. I don’t like arguing and blaming each other. I don’t like this. If I am wrong, I am ready to apologize for my mistake. And then I shall correct my mistake. And also, I will say if I have to say something to someone. After that, I will forget it. There will be no problem if it is to correct the wrong to be right, bad to good. I have no problem accepting my mistake if it is real. But I could not bear anymore when being wrongly and unnecessarily accused again and again.
How do you see and review your experience of working with CSOs during the elections?
I rely on CSOs and I respect them. Since 2012, I have realized that CSOs should get involved in the election process. And then I invited them to take part in the election but I was so poor in awareness about these CSOs. I knew only about Fire Brigades, Women’s Affairs, Maternity, and Children Associations etc. I did not know about others CSOs. I did not know there were many other CSOs in our country. So in 2012, I approached only these CSOs that I knew for election awareness campaigns. And then I was told there were many more CSOs such as Kyaw Swar Myint’s organization. So I approached them to conduct election awareness campaigns among the people and we did a lot. We held meetings once every two months. On every occasion, I held two meetings, first with parties and then with CSOs. These CSOs are very smart and interested in their work and they are capable and competent in their work. So I recognize their role.
I’d like to ask you a question on reforms. In the last five years, the government had reforms, in politics, in economics, in society, in all sectors. Now the new government will assume office after this general election. So how do you see and what is your opinion on the democratic reforms as a chairman of the Union Election Commission? What are the strong points and what are the challenges in these reforms?
The democratic system is a very good system. In the democratic system, people should have a high level of education, knowledge and wisdom otherwise, there will be anarchy and chaos. We must be careful with these things. Among all the political systems, I think the democratic system is the best. We had it in the socialist era too, the then government practiced this system. But the people should have high capacity. They must have knowledge and education. They must know their rights and also others’ rights. And also, they need to know their responsibilities to the state. If the people know all these things then a democratic system is okay. The change is also good. It will be good to see the state has been changed. If the capacity of the people is not increasing along with these changes and reforms, there will be anarchy and chaos. So you will notice how there are some controls and restrictions kept in our 2008 constitution as a disciplined democracy. The restrictions and controls will be relaxed as the people get more experience.
You have served in the military for over 40 years. And then you were given this post of Chairman of the Union Election Commission by President Thein Sein. How do you see this period? How do you feel about the change in your life and how do you feel about your work?
You might think I am boasting. If I have to say my feelings, I joined the army in 1963 one year after the military took power by coup d’etat in 1962. I was a Captain when the political system was changed to a socialist system in 1974 from the former Revolutionary Council. I joined the then Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and I became a party member. When the popular uprising broke out in 1988 and the socialist regime collapsed I was a Commanding Officer of an infantry battalion. I became CO in 1987 at Infantry Battalion No. 17 in Myeik. You can ask the people in Myeik what I did in the 1988 uprising. I protected people from danger and I maintained law and order in Myeik when the military took power in 1988. I tried my best to protect people from anarchy and chaos. After the regime took power in 1988, I was first transferred to a civilian position. I am a professional soldier. I was promoted gradually from district level chairman of the then Law and Order Restoration Council to finally the post of a member of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
In 2010 election, I resigned from my military post to stand for election for the constituency of my hometown Tada-u. I visited Tada-u regularly and I looked after the place not because of the election. I regularly visit my town and my village. I built schools, clinics and a library there. And I built roads in my village too. I kept my life this way. So I mean I have been in politics since the time of the Revolutionry Council and I had experience of the socialist system. I had experience in SPDC. I was in one or another role whenever the government was changed in the country. So some thought I came from the inner circle of the top brass. No, I’m not. I have never been in the inner circle of the top brass. I met Senior Gen. Than Shwe only one or two times, not much. I met him not more than two, three times until I became CO of an infantry battalion. Even though, we didn’t meet in private. He visited our battalion and I hosted him, that’s all. When I was in civilian posts, I was close with the downtrodden people and I know well the feelings of these underprivileged masses. Their feeling is in my heart. I mean from 1963 to 2015, I have been in politics and I did my jobs based on my own experiences.
Anyway our country should have developed but it didn’t. Why? What can I do for my country? I asked myself and I did my best. Our country is in a strategic position geopolitically. Our country needs to be strong. And so does our army. I want my country’s education, health, and economic sectors well developed. In my experience, I tried my best to fulfill the duty I was assigned. When I was a junior officer, I successfully did my duty in security and military operations. I worked as an instructor in Officer Training Corps. You can ask these cadets who are now promoted up to Lt. Gen rank. I did well in this job too. I trained these cadets to be good officers and gentlemen. My principle is to stay in the present and look at the present. We need to do a good job today. And then we will get the change from quantity to quality. If we do good jobs in large quantity they will become quality. Similary if we do bad jobs in large quantity they will become bad quality. We don’t need to put blame on others. We know ourselves what is the best. So don’t put blame on others, we know ourselves. I did my jobs based on this principle.
Did you ever have a time when you felt upset and disappointed?
No, not at all. I have no feeling on facing success or failure. I felt nothing when I faced failure. I took only lessons from my failure. Why did I fail? What shall I do to make it a success? I asked myself these questions. I drew lessons from my failures and reviewed them. When I felt extremely disappointed I forgot this thing. I never felt totally upset.
You said you would not do this job again. So what will you do next? Will you be in politics?
I will do work which I can do alone. I will do social work. I will help in the state’s economic sector. As for a job in a state institution, I will do this job if I am assigned. If I have to do this job, I will do so in my belief that the country needs to be strong. I will always work for a strong economy, army, health, and education. I say these words to everyone regarding my beliefs. I shall do these jobs until my last breath.
It has generally been recognized that you did the job of chairman of the Union Election Commission successfully and that during your career, you did the jobs assigned to you successfully. What would you like to say to the next generation especially the young people?
I always said when I was in the army, self-good cannot achieve the result. The belief that only one person needs to be good and then the mission will be accomplished is not correct. We need to build our organization to be good too. Building oneself to be good must go hand in hand with building the organization to be good. Suppose you are a sculptor and you are adept at your work but if your chisels are not sharp enough and good enough you cannot make a good sculpture or statue. We need team work. When our friends worked together, I always reviewed our work. My friend was smarter than me but the end result could not catch up with mine. He was good and smart in himself but he could not make his team or organization good. So his organization could not get the results expected. If you have success, needless to say, it is because of your team. You can’t say the failure was because of them. As a team leader, you have the responsibility of making your team smart and good. You will get good results only if they are good enough. This is my priniciple and belief. This is what I’d like to say to all.