U Pe Aung Lin is the chairman of the Myanmar Center to Empower Regional Parliaments (MCERP). This post is a transcript of a conversation with Mael Raynaud, the Head of Research at Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning. MCERP is a partner organization in the Decentralization Project, 2018-2019, supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), and coordinated by Mael Raynaud. This conversation took place on February 12, 2019, at the offices of MCERP in Yangon.
Mael Raynaud (MR): Before we start, can you present yourself, and MCERP?
U Pe Aung Lin (PAL): On the eve of the 2015 election, our group of ex-political prisoners decided to get involved in the democratization process. Aung Din, a mechanical engineer who was a student leader in 1988, and who has been very active in Myanmar politics ever since, is a senior advisor to MCERP. Our Executive Director, Bo Bo aka Thein Naing was an 88 generation group leader, and he has served 8 years in prison for political activities from 1992. I myself am the Chairman of MCERP, am an electronic engineer, and was a student leader from the 1974 generation. I’ve been involved in politics again in 1988, and since. I was arrested and imprisoned from 1990 to 1992, together with 33 MPs, for high treason, after the 1990 election. We’re a group of former political prisoner friends who formed the Myanmar Center to Empower Regional Parliaments, and we have been helping Regional Parliaments for over three years. Many MPs and most of the Chief ministers in the present government have spent years in prison. This makes MCERP a most suitable organization to work with regional parliaments as well as with regional governments. During our first year, we printed and distributed about 30,000 guide books for Yangon, Ayeyarwaddy and Kayah regions and MP handbooks for all regional MPs. In 2017 we published guidebooks for Karen, Mandalay, Bago, Mon and Sagaing. In 2018 we printed and distributed guide books for Magwe and Rakhine, Chin, and Tanintharyi. Our MCERP team has visited all regional parliaments and met with speakers, committee chairmen and relevant people in each state and region. We have been distributing our monthly bulletins to all regional MPs directly and regularly. These bulletins cover everything happening in all regional parliaments around the country. Apart from that we have given professional advice and legal advice to parliaments and committees directly, whenever needed. And as you know, we have conducted workshops in Bago and Sagaing Regions as part of the Decentralization Project with you [Mael], when we have discussed issues of capacity for MPs in State and Region Parliaments.
MR: So, why do you think there is a need to “empower” regional parliaments?
PAL: There are two points. First, regional parliaments are very new to our country. Our people are very weak in their knowledge of regional parliaments. The second thing, the main thing, is that we are witnessing for the first time a situation where parliaments are not just rubber stamp parliaments, since the 2015 elections. We knew the USDP would not win, before 2015, but we did not know there would be such a majority party again during the second legislature. We thought the system would be more decentralized after the NLD won. We wanted to do something for our country, and realized that all the attention was given to Nay Pyi Taw, and little was being dedicated to States and Regions.
MR: Why did you think the system would be more decentralized after a NLD victory?
PAL: Not because of the NLD victory, because of the Constitution. If the system worked according to the Constitution, the system would be decentralized. Also, with people freely elected in the State and Region parliaments, these institutions would work, also, more freely.
MR: And do you think we have seen such a degree of decentralization since 2016?
PAL: Yes. We have seen a lot, in terms of decentralization. The only thing slowing down decentralization is the capacity of the MPs and the regional governments. Also, the NLD as a party is too weak to implement decentralization.
MR: We will get to capacity issues, but what do you mean when you say the NLD is too weak to implement decentralization?
PAL: The NLD has been oppressed for many years. All of its party officials were repeatedly arrested. The party itself was barely surviving.
MR: This is interesting, because you seem to sympathize with the NLD to a great extent, here, while many people have been more critical of them. To what extent do you understand the NLD, and to what extent are you also disappointed by them?
PAL: I have no disappointment. It is a given situation. We have to go through this stage at one point or another. We have come to a crucial moment when we all need to change: change in our way of thinking, and change our system as a whole.
MR: So indeed, you seem to be pointing to issues of capacity, that you see as normal. Before we get to capacity, I need to ask you this: Don’t you think the 2008 Constitution itself is an obstacle to decentralization?
PAL: We are in the middle of three big dilemmas. We are going through a triple transition for the whole country, and the constitution is one of those three.
MR: And the two others?
PAL: One is linked to ethnic nationalities and the peace process, including issues that have to do with business interests and economic development. The other problem is that the whole system is more accustomed to dictatorship: the rules, the structure, everything. It takes time to change the system piece by piece. To me, the constitution is only the first step, and it has to be amended again and again. It’s not a real obstacle.
MR: So you do see the constitution as an obstacle, but one that it will take time to overcome? In the meantime, capacity, and particularly that of NLD MPs in regional parliaments, as far as your work is concerned, is the priority.
PAL: There are many factors playing out at the same time. Even if we build capacity, there are other issues to be tackled. There are about 200 laws in the pipeline, waiting to be amended by the commission headed by Shwe Mann. Until they are completed, regional MPs cannot write legislation related to them, as prescribed by the constitution. MPs can only perform their two other duties: oversight and representation of their constituents.
MR: So, the factors for change include: the constitution, existing laws, the way those inside the system are accustomed to old ways, and following from this, the capacity that people – and specifically, MPs – have to work in a more democratic way and reform the country. Is that it?”
PAL: Yes, when it comes to writing legislation, but the most important part is the political issues handled by the ruling party: Reconciliation with the military, revitalizing the party, and participation of the whole populace.
MR: You are touching on something I have said very often in the last couple of years. For elected representatives, capacity does not just mean the capacity to do one’s job, but also the capacity to work with others so that one’s decisions reflect the will of more than only them personally. Capacity to govern, but also capacity to govern in a democratic fashion. The NLD has not always been very good at it, has it?
PAL: Not really. Like I said, it has been barely surviving for many years, and now they are over-burdened with the task of changing the whole country. Building a democratic system is still in their agenda.
MR: So the way you see things, the NLD is genuinely trying to change the country for the better, but it faces many challenges. Some may think you are too optimistic, but at least your analysis makes it possible to engage with the NLD and its MPs in a positive manner. And particularly, with capacity issues, how have you tried to do this, and how do NLD MPs respond to you trying to engage them on as sensitive an issue as their own capacity?
PAL: They have no choice but to keep on pushing as much as they can, while making sure they don’t destabilize the current situation. There is always a threat from every angle in their line of duty.
MR: Having to push for change in a difficult context is one thing, but admitting one’s difficulties in performing one’s tasks is another. Do the MPs you work with accept the notion that they themselves need to be better at their job?
PAL: They are very much transparent once trust is established. We need to take time to build confidence in one another, using our own experience. This helps a lot, of course. Otherwise they would not disclose their problems, although they are facing so many difficulties. This comes from this old military mentality to not show one’s weaknesses.
MR: Tell me more about how exactly you get into these conversations. How do you get there, and what do you do in order to have these conversations?
PAL: We have tried to help them in many ways that include publishing monthly bulletins for them, as I told you earlier. We are providing them with all the assistance we can. Only after engaging them many times, and coming in, recommended by their superiors, could we reach them.
MR: This supposes access to the leadership. You have old ties to people high-up in the NLD, dating back many years, isn’t that true?
PAL: Yes, that’s correct. We worked together in many ways.
MR: And you spent time in jail with some of them, too…
PAL: Yes. We were cellmates, sometimes we were convicted at the same time, on the same cases.
MR: You see NLD MPs as colleagues and friends, you embarked on the same difficult and long journey of bringing about change to Myanmar. This is very good, of course. But it begs the question of how people get to disagree in politics. The NLD, as a party promoting democracy, also has the duty to listen to civil society. People reading this interview will be quick to mention many things: the suppression of demonstrations, the journalists in jail, terrible laws such as the recent land law, the imposition of a statue of Aung San the people of Kayah State did not want. Again, capacity to govern is one thing, and your work at this level, on how to write legislation for instance, is critical. But do you also discuss capacity when it comes to listening to other stakeholders, an MP’s own constituents, etc.? I would associate this more with a lack of democratic culture in Myanmar. How about that?
PAL: I see most of this as poor management and a lack of information sharing. It is true that we need to listen to the people at all times. But in order to be able to settle problems, it’s another issue…
MR: So in a way, in order to be able to listen to people and have a real dialogue, politicians need to be able to formulate answers, in the form of adequate laws, and that building the capacity to indeed write these better laws, to design adequate policies, is a pre-requisite to having these dialogues with people, say with civil society activists for instance? The NLD has an issue of communication with civil society because they don’t know to turn the demands they hear into policies they can design and laws they can vote on? That’s an interesting theory…
PAL: That is exactly true.
MR: So tell me more about these conversations you have with NLD MPs in the State and Region parliaments. What do you talk about?
PAL: We talk about misunderstandings between civil servants and MPs. About their shortage of funding and other forms of support for their activities, in performing their duties. The lack of assistance for the legislative process.
MR: So they need better relations with the civil servants who used to work under previous governments, more money to do their job, and more assistance in the legislative process. Listening to you, it sounds as if there’s a lot that could be done to support both the process of democratization, and the process of decentralization. Most importantly, you’re saying that there are indeed MPs ready to work with organizations coming to them with a genuine commitment to helping them. Is that correct?
PAL: Yes, correct. And many organizations already do, each in their own way. But I think we have now reached a stage when the support regional parliaments receive needs to be more specific, more focused, more efficient, more practical. MPs need support day-by-day, for their actual work.
MR: What strikes me here is the fact that this will not change after the 2020 general election whichever party wins in any given State or Region. This is not just true of the NLD. Would you agree that the kind of support you are offering, and which you are de facto calling to develop further, will still be needed during the third legislature, from 2021 to 2026? And that it is support that all parties, including ethnic political parties, will need, then?
PAL: Absolutely. There will be a need for even more, because the real transition can take place during this term. In terms of democratization, as well as decentralization.
MR: Thank you very much, Saya.
(Image courtesy of MCERP)