Thursday, September 21, 2017

From Australia, some advice for an adviser

Two recent articles published in the Messenger news journal on July 8 reflected the outdated thinking of Myanmar’s dictatorship, not the new democratic thinking required for its political transformation.

One was by Htin Lynn Oo and the other by U Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to President U Thein Sein. The articles mount a concerted attack on the parliament and even dare to suggest that parliament could be abolished because the president is doing a good job.

The views expressed are understandable given the 50 years of dictatorship Myanmar has endured. But they are troubling coming from a presidential adviser and raise serious questions about the nature and quality of advice U Thein Sein is receiving.

U Nay Zin Latt’s article is chauvinistic in tone. Its message is, “We know what is best, so everyone should shut up except the appointed leaders.”

Under military dictatorship the attitude was that people needed to be shut up to maintain stability. During the transformation it is that they need to be shut up to smooth the reform path ahead. However, the dictatorship’s modus operandi of command and control is not suitable for democratic leadership, which requires collaboration and compromise.

The president and the people need advisers with demonstrated knowledge of democratic transformation and development. There is no evidence in U Nay Zin Latt’s article that he possesses this knowledge.

He says that those in charge control how history is written. However, history judges favourably those political leaders who govern with sound policies and laws and a good heart. Put up laws like the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law and you should expect criticism. State that the government will not review, reform or repeal the draconian Emergency Provisions Act 1950 or the State Protection Act 1975 and you should expect more criticism.

He also criticised parliament for proposing to delay the announcement of the telecoms tender winners, and also Time magazine for its “Face of Buddhist Terror” cover. Foreign

investors would not be as concerned as U Nay Zin Latt about parliament involving itself in the telecommunications tender announcement. Rather, they look for security of their investment, a corruption-resistant environment and, ideally, the rule of law.

Time may be a nuisance but the conflicted and challenging situation in Rakhine State lends itself to international comment.

In Myanmar, no one accepts the existence of the Rohingya as a race or ethnic nationality group but this needs discussion. Options that have been proposed so far include the United Nations Refugee Agency resettling them in other countries, as well as restrictions on family size, prohibitions on interfaith marriage and segregated living. Apparently there is also no need to change the 1982 Citizenship Law. Some of these views have been attributed to the president and some to MPs. All fail to address the root causes of the issue and in many cases contravene human rights norms.

A better approach would be to offer sound advice to the president on interfaith collaboration, peace processes and what a model citizenship law looks like. Others have said clearly and concisely what needs to be said, notably that the Citizenship Law must be reviewed within the rule of law framework. The silence is in terms of action from the country’s leadership.

U Nay Zin Latt asserts that the people of Myanmar have a different mentality than in earlier times. This may be so but their expectations are the same. They want freedom. They want to be led, not ruled. And they want their basic needs met.

He concludes with an ominous warning to unnamed “opportunists”, saying that “there is still time to mend their attitude or recalibrate to be in line with the path to reforms ahead of them”. This, sadly, echoes the old, patronising politics of autocratic government, not the new politics of democratic leadership.

Janelle Saffin is an MP in the Australian parliament and a special adviser on policy development to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A long-time friend of Myanmar, her engagement focuses on constitutional, legal, election and political history.