‘This is just one of the vicissitudes of politics’ in Myanmar

As Myanmar’s coup regime moves forward with plans to hold elections later this year, Myanmar Now speaks with Sai Leik, the general secretary of the country’s largest ethnic party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), about what this will mean for his party and the democratic struggle.

Myanmar Now: The SNLD has survived many years of conflict between Myanmar’s military and the country’s democratic forces, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). What path do you think is best for your party in the wake of the latest coup?

Sai Leik: Aung San Suu Kyi has been out of the picture for a while now, so that has created a large gap. But there are also other democratic forces opposing the regime to consider now, including the National Unity Government and the National Unity Consultative Council, as well as many ethnic armed forces. So the political situation doesn’t just depend on the NLD and the military council anymore.

The end goal is still to establish democracy and federalism in the entire country, so we think the time has come to unite all democratic forces to achieve this goal.

Sai Leik, the general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (Supplied)

MN: Are you concerned that the junta will release Suu Kyi as it did in 2010 to legitimise its planned election?

SL: It’s possible they may try to create the same political situation as they did in 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi was in detention at that time, too. After they released her, they convinced her to participate in their by-election. Once she and the NLD entered parliament, it became more powerful.

But that scenario is less likely now. It’s doubtful that Aung San Suu Kyi still has the same hold over the entire NLD party that she did before. There are also many more resistance groups around the country now, and they have become such a large force. And no one really knows how Aung San Suu Kyi would respond this time.

In 2010, the parties agreed to play the game within the framework of the 2008 constitution, despite widespread rejection of the constitution. There is not much chance of that happening again, since the military can’t claim that it is trying to restore stability, when they are the ones who destroyed it.

NLD and SNLD officials meet in Taunggyi on January 16, 2021, ahead of the planned formation of a new government (SNLD)

MN: There has also been some talk of the military making concessions to ethnic demands for more control at the state level.

SL: The military has hinted in the past at allowing a partial amendment of the 2008 constitution. But when it met recently with representatives of the United Wa State Party, the National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Shan State Progress Party, there was no mention of Article 261 [the section pertaining to constitutional amendments].

No matter how much they say they will allow amendments or the drafting of state constitutions, in the end, they will only make minor adjustments. It’s all just a bluff. The military council has no real intention of following the path of democracy and federalism.

MN: So what are your views on the junta’s plans to hold elections this year?

SL: This is not the right time for an election. It won’t do anything to improve the situation of the country or its people. 

MN: Has the regime contacted the SNLD about the election?

SL: No, we’ve had no contact with their Union Election Commission since the coup, much less direct contact with the military council.

MN: Do you think they will force parties to register for the election, as they did in 2010?

SL: The answer to that is clear if we look at the recent interviews of people close to the military junta. If they do go ahead with the election, a new Political Parties Registration Law will be enacted so they can scrutinize the parties and select the ones they want to be involved and remove those they are not compatible with from the electoral process. This is their usual tactic, and I am almost certain this is what they will do again this time. 

MN: Are you worried that the SNLD will be declared illegal if it doesn’t register?

SL: This is just one of the vicissitudes of politics. They did it before in 2010. The parties that won in the 1990 election were dissolved because they didn’t accept new laws. But they later returned to the political sphere due to the country’s needs and political situation. So I don’t think we have to worry too much about this.

Local resistance fighters in Sagaing engage in battle with junta troops in January 2023 (Myanmar Now)

MN: How is your relationship with other parties, including the NLD and the other members of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)?

SL: We have almost no contact with the NLD. There is some communication between the members of our parties, but no official party-to-party relationship because the NLD is not able to open an office.

We have regular contact with the other UNA members and attend meetings with them. We also hold discussions if necessary. When it comes to the election, most think it is unacceptable and are keeping a watchful eye.

The military council hasn’t announced an election date or any rules or election laws. But it is clearly not normal for the regime to act as a referee in an election that it has organised themselves. Everyone sees it that way. 

MN: What are your views on the current state of the democratic struggle? 

SL: The main thing is not to lose sight of the end goal and to walk on the path together as a collective force with understanding and patience for each other. We tend to disagree with each other when we tread on different paths, even when we have the same end goal. We need to fix that habit as soon as possible.

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