Myanmar’s outgoing President Thein Sein plugged his accomplishments in office and pledged to help the new National League for Democracy government during his final speech to parliament on Thursday in the capital Naypyidaw, while opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced her party’s nominations for key legislative positions.
Thein Sein, who will step down in late March, urged the country’s political parties to cooperate in the nation’s interest and outlined the achievements of his government, highlighting the political and economic changes that have taken place since his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) took office in 2011.
The president stressed his efforts to forge a nationwide peace accord with the country’s armed ethnic groups, boost foreign investment, eliminate censorship, legalize trade unions and free political prisoners.
“Even though there were difficulties and challenges, we were able to bring a democratic transformation eventually,” he said. “I tried everything in my power to balance what should be done and what could be done. Instead of commands and orders, I tried for active participation by the stakeholders.’’
Thein Sein, a former military officer, went on to say that Myanmar now has a more politically democratic culture following his five years in office.
“More political forces with different ideologies can discuss their views and seek solutions through dialogue,” he said. “There’s no way to deny that we have a democratic political culture. More democratic practices have been nurtured among the people, and we have built stronger political institutions.”
Thein Sein delivered his speech the same day as members of the National Assembly passed a controversial law granting former presidents immunity from prosecution for undefined acts committed while they held office. The move prompted a call from London-based Amnesty International to repeal or amend the law.
Current lawmakers, whose term of office ends Friday, will make way for a new legislature dominated by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which will convene Monday and select speakers of the two houses of parliament before electing a new president during the next few weeks.
Deputies in each house plus appointed military members of parliament (MPs) will each nominate a presidential candidate, and vote on the selections, with the winner becoming president and the other two the speakers.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who cannot become president because of a provision in the current constitution that prevents anyone with foreign-born spouses or children from seeking the nation’s highest office, has said she will occupy a position above the president.
The NLD, which swept general elections last November, has enough votes in parliament to see that its own president is voted in, but still will have to share power with military MPs who hold 25 percent of the legislature’s seats.
The NLD will nominate Win Myint, a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee, as lower house speaker, Ti Khun Myat, a sitting MP from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, as his deputy, Manh Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen MP, as chairman of the upper house and Aye Thar Aung from the Arakan National Party as his deputy, according to NLD spokesman Win Htein.
“We are here for national reconciliation, so the stage is set for us to work for a better parliament,” Ti Khun Myat said.
Those who were put forward for the positions had not been notified about their nominations in advance, Aye Thar Aung said.
A questionable nomination
Some observers, however, are questioning the nomination of Ti Khun Myat, who has been accused in reports by local media of being involved in the illegal drug trade and having ties to a government-allied militia in his constituency of Kutkai in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state.
Thar Phone Kyaw, general secretary of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, said when Ti Khun Myat served in the local People’s Militia, his troops were involved in producing narcotic drugs for about a decade.
“They distributed the drugs in our area,” he said. “They were a formidable force, and they persuaded and forced the local [ethnic] Ta’ang/Palaung farmers to join in their work and paid them to produce opium.
“They made a fortune from drug production,” he said. “In the western Kutkai region, they had militia camps, and we raided some and seized a lot of arms and opium.”
Thar Phone Kyaw speculated that the selection of Ti Khun Myat was the result of the NLD’s “give-and-take arrangement” with Myanmar’s military, given its power in the National Assembly, or a stunt to create problems for the new government.
“This could be a trick by the military to cause problems [because] it’s quite a risk that the NLD had to take,” he said. “There’s no way Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD couldn’t have known that Ti Khun Myat was a drug lord.”
Khun Sai, former editor-in-chief of the local daily newspaper Shan Herald, said some of his friends had warned him about Ti Khun Myat’s involvement in illegal activities.
“I couldn’t believe he was directly involved in the production of narcotic drugs,” he told RFA. “But we always had information about his followers’ involvement in drug production. It would be difficult for him to deny that he didn’t know what his followers had been doing.”
But Khun Sai also pointed out that the MP served had already served as a USDP lawmaker on the Legislative Bills Committee and could be a useful asset for NLD leaders who are striving for national reconciliation.
While the NLD announced its nominations for key positions in the National Assembly, Shwe Mann, speaker of the outgoing parliament, told lawmakers in the lower house on Thursday that challenges remain for the legislature regarding the implementation of laws it has adopted.
He also said that legislative sessions under the NLD-led government should do a better job of focusing on the interests of the people.
Lawmakers from the country’s various ethnic groups, who also addressed their fellow MPs, stressed the need for further democratic reform and nationwide peace.
Ba Shin, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party of western Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, said it was important to seek peace and form a federal union.
Ye Tun, a lawmaker from Shan National Democratic Party, noted that the new government and people must implement the good laws passed by parliament and realize the country’s democratic goals.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine, Win Ko Ko Lat, Myo Thant Khaing, Hpone Myat and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.