UPDATED at 10:30 A.M. on 2018-04-18
Myanmar President Win Myint, who has been in office for less than three weeks, outlined an ambitious agenda for improving jobs, housing, the judiciary, and human rights in a speech on Tuesday for the Buddhist New Year, prompting political pundits to level criticism that the plan does not go far enough to bring about much-needed change in the developing democracy.
In his speech in honor of the Thingyan holiday, Win Myint, who was sworn in on March 30 to replace former President Htin Kyaw, discussed a number of areas where the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government will make improvements, including tighter management of government departments that “lag behind in reform,” housing and salary increases for civil servants, electric grid expansion, road upgrades, loans for small- and medium-sized enterprises, additional financial assistance for university students, and crackdowns on corruption and illegal drug manufacturers.
He also said that illegally confiscated farmlands would be returned to their owners and that those whose land was taken would receive compensation.
Win Myint — who as president plays second fiddle to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader — also said he was strengthening Myanmar's judicial sector by instructing the chief justice and Supreme Court judges to ensure that judges at all levels exercise proper supervisory functions with full accountability and responsibility.
“We need to strive for a judiciary branch that is impartial, independent, and which balances fairness and judicious reasoning,” he said. “We need to ensure that in the face of the law all are equal and that things are done in accordance with the law.”
He also pledged to step up the government's efforts to prevent human rights abuses by increasing cooperation with community-based organizations, civil society groups, the media, and the people.
“The Human Rights Commission should endeavor to provide protection to ensure the legal basic rights of individuals, the fundamental rights of citizens, and the freedom and security of citizens at interrogation centers, police station lockups, court detention rooms, jails, and hard labor prisoner camps, in fact, in all these places without discrimination,” Win Myint said.
As part of the Thingyan celebrations, the president 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.
‘We can’t expect any better’
Prominent rights attorney Robert San Aung said Win Myint's plan to shore up the country's judicial sector should begin with the replacement of some of the country's top judges.
“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 high-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 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 main goal of the NLD government.
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Thiri Min Zin and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.