The powerful speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament on Friday chided a lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party for targeting the long-ruling army’s involvement in key economic sectors during debate over a draft bill on national plans for the upcoming fiscal year.
Speaker Shwe Man interrupted NLD lawmaker Aung Moe Nyo as he discussed the military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd. (UMEHL), an army-owned conglomerate that includes garment factories, copper mines in Mount Letpadaung in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, Myawaddy Bank, and the shipping firm Myanma Five Star Line, and suggested it only benefited military officers, not rank-and-file soldiers.
“In my constituency, soldiers are extremely poor because they don’t have enough clothing and food,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way. If high-ranking officers are excessively rich while ordinary soldiers are deprived, ...”
But Shwe Mann, a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), interrupted him and said: “Don’t use words that damage the dignity of the organization [army]. This should be the last warning.”
Aung Moe Nyo, however, continued his comments about the government army and its grip on the economy, strengthened over decades of unchallenged military rule.
“According to the findings of foreign researchers, the Myanmar army, police force and judiciary system are the institutions that people have the least trust in,” he said. “We should really emphasize that these institutions need to be trustworthy to meet our goals.”
The verbal exchange underscores the power that the government army wields in both business and parliament, where a quarter of the seats are appointed to military officers. The army will maintain its proportion of representatives in parliament when a new NLD government and leader assumes power before March 31, the date on which the current government will be dissolved.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense runs the UMEHL and another large conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Corporation. Although the United States suspended sanctions against the country in 2012, it has maintained sanctions against both firms because of their military affiliations.
Holding the country back
After hearing about the exchange between Shwe Mann and Aung Moe Nyo, some observers suggested that the army’s business interests were holding the country back.
“The army has largely been involved in politics and the economic sector in Myanmar,” said Pyi Thway Naing, editor of Khit Yanant monthly magazine. “Now everyone is watching to see the transfer of power to the new government and how it will deal with crony businessmen and the army-owned UMEHL. If the new government doesn’t abolish the UMEHL, Myanmar’s economy will not improve.”
He also pointed out that Shwe Mann used to be the No. 3 leader of the former military regime that ruled the country prior to 2010, the year that the USDP came into power, and that his family continues to control a huge business empire in the country.
“I think that’s why Shwe Mann tried to cut off the MP’s discussion,” he said.
Kyaw Yin Mying, a Mandalay-based writer, told RFA that Shwe Mann warned Aung Moe Nyo because the speaker believes now is not the right time to raise the issue, given that many other priorities must be addressed during a delicate political transition.
“This issue is one of the issues that should be discussed on another day,” he said. “The army itself will become aware of it and step back from the business sector one day as the Chinese army did.”
NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party swept the Nov. 8 elections, has made nationwide peace that would end decades of civil wars between the army and various armed ethnic rebel groups her government’s first priority.
Shwe Mann has met several times with Aung San Suu Kyi since the elections and agreed to work towards national reconciliation in the new parliament, which will convene on Feb. 1.
In the meantime, the government army continues to be involved in ongoing clashes with certain armed ethnic groups in various part of the country, including Shan and Kachin states in northern Myanmar and Rakhine state in the western part of the country.
Government representatives, military officers and leaders from the armed ethnic groups have been engaged in political dialogue this week at the Union Peace Conference in the capital Naypyidaw.
Reported by Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.