Political Observers Take Aim at Myanmar President’s Holiday Speech

Political observers in Myanmar say President Win Myint, who has been in office for less than three weeks, discussed an ambitious political agenda for the coming year in a speech marking the Buddhist New Year, as the developing democracy grapples with accusations of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, civil wars, and a stymied peace process.

In a public speech on Tuesday in honor of the Thingyan holiday, Win Myint, who was sworn in on March 30 to replace former President Htin Kyaw, said he would strive for changes on the basis of non-impact[s] on stability and with transparency and accountability at each level, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency.

As part of the Thingyan celebrations, Win Myint also granted amnesty on humanitarian grounds to 8,490 citizens and 51 foreigners serving jail sentences in Myanmar, including three dozen political prisoners.

Among those freed were the elderly, those suffering from poor health, and drug offenders.

Two Baptist leaders from northeastern Myanmar’s ethnic Kachin community serving prison terms for defamation and unlawful association with ethnic militia soldiers were also among those released.

Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and Langjaw Gam Seng, a KBC youth leader, were detained by soldiers in December 2016 after giving journalists information about a church allegedly hit by military airstrikes in clashes between the government army and ethnic guerrillas in neighboring Shan state.

Still in jail, however, are two reporters for Reuters news agency charged with violating the country’s Official Secrets Act for their work investigating violence against Rohingya Muslims by the military in Rakhine state � a crackdown that the United Nations and the United States have said amounts to ethnic cleansing. Their trial is ongoing.

Though 36 political prisoners were released under the amnesty, 18 remain in different jails, 74 are undergoing trials while in prison, and 120 are undergoing trials while under house arrest, said Bo Kyi, cofounder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organization that tracks the number of political prisoners in Myanmar jails.

We would like to request the president to consider releasing them as well, he said.

Political prisoners who are freed often encounter difficulty with finding a job and are discriminated against, he said.

If we can eliminate this discrimination, it would be better for them, Bo Kyi said.

Win Myint reiterated the main priorities he mentioned in his inauguration speech before Myanmar’s parliament on March 30, namely law enforcement, socioeconomic development, national reconciliation and domestic peace, and changes to the constitution to establish a democratic federal union.

Win Myint � whose role as president plays second fiddle to that of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader � also called for giving a boost to government departments that are making slow progress, prioritizing socioeconomic development by building houses for government employees, making the availability of electricity widespread, and issuing loans for small and medium enterprises, Xinhua said.

He also called for changes to the country’s deteriorating judiciary and a focus on fighting corruption, protecting human rights, curbing the sale and use of illegal drugs, returning confiscated land and paying compensation to those affected by land grabs, and offering better higher education opportunities for students, the report said.

‘We can’t expect any better’

Prominent rights attorney Robert San Aung suggested the president begin by changing some top judges in the country.

People are suffering every day, he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. If we can’t back up the deteriorating judiciary, we can’t expect any better situation for peace, democracy, and human rights.

We should reshuffle some top-level judges, he said. Judicial systems in some states and regions have been destabilized. Judges in those places have to be replaced with new blood.

We also need to issue a law concerning the violation of human rights [because] right now one person can be sued repeatedly, he said. It is like torturing a person.

Ye Htun, a former lower house lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Development Party and an observer of parliamentary activities and the reform process, said Win Myint should focus on replacing top-level government functionaries who do not work in the public’s interest and on building trust with Myanmar’s powerful military.

Military officers control three key defense and security ministries and hold a quarter of the seats in parliament through appointment, as guaranteed by the constitution.

For the nation’s reform, the mindsets of the director generals and permanent secretaries of all the ministries are very important, he told RFA. If they work only in their own interest, they should be removed.

If the president who has to represent and is responsible for the nation doesn’t have the authority to remove or doesn’t dare remove these kinds of officials, the reform process will not be successful, he said.

Because the military occupies an important role in Myanmar, the government must build trust with it so Win Myint can accomplish his goals, Ye Htun said.

When the president tries to implement something important, such as removing corrupt top-level officials or ones who violate laws, he needs to get agreement from both Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi and the military commander-in-chief, he said.

The constitution and peace process

Sai Laik, deputy secretary of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the political party that became the largest ethnic Shan party in Myanmar’s parliament after the 2015 general election that brought the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power, took Win Myint to task for not discussing amending the constitution in conjunction with Myanmar’s peace process.

He said to have a true federal union, both processes must be undertaken at the same time.

President Win Myint didn’t mention anything about this, he said. Does it mean the government will find another option for the peace process because the current process doesn’t work?

If the president doesn’t work on peace and amending the constitution, it goes against what the NLD said in its election campaign statement and it will also damage the country’s politics, he said.

Before the 2015 election, the NLD sought to make changes to the constitution, drafted in 2008 by a former military junta that ruled the country, to curb the political power of the armed forces.

Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading peace negotiations with the government military and ethnic armed groups in a bid to end decades-long civil war and foster national reconciliation. She has made the achievement of lasting peace the primary goal of the NLD government.

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