National League for Democracy MP Phyo Min Thein discusses torture, ethnic violence and Myanmar’s long road towards democracy
Text & Photos by Daniel Otis
Back in 1988, Phyo Min Thein took to Yangon’s streets. The second-year university student wanted to change the educational and political systems that he felt were shackling his country. Following the military’s brutal crackdown on demonstrations later that year, the student leader went underground, before re-emerging in 1990 to protest again. He was arrested in 1991 and, despite being sentenced to seven years imprisonment, was not released until 2005. Like many other political prisoners, he was tortured by Myanmar’s secret police.
In 2010, Phyo Min Thein helped form the short-lived Union Democratic Party but resigned from his chairmanship before the 2010 general election, citing a lack of real reform. The following year, the National League for Democracy (NLD) asked him to run as a candidate in the country’s April 2012 by-election. He is now one of 43 NLD parliamentarians in a house dominated by current and former members of Myanmar’s military.
How did you survive your protracted incarceration?
I survived because I believed that I was working for the benefit of the people. This gave me a sense of dignity and value. For some people imprisonment and torture made them lose their minds. Most of my fellow student leaders, however, remained strong.
How does it feel to be working alongside those responsible for your incarceration and torture?
I used to think that I would try to hurt them back, but The Lady advised people like me to treat them well. So, when I meet these people, I’m always cheerful and friendly with them. They don’t expect it – it makes them rather uncomfortable.
What has being in parliament taught you about the inner workings of Myanmar’s government?
I’ve developed strong relationships with several high officials. In talking with these people, who were members of the military junta, I’ve learned that there are internal conflicts and power struggles within the government. Right now, the relationship between parliament and the executive is particularly strained. Also, members of the government lack political ideology – they are only interested in economic development and maintaining their positions.
To what extent is the NLD being allowed to participate in Myanmar’s reform process?
After the statement of the commission on the Lapadaungtaung copper mine led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the government knows that The Lady wants to improve the country. So they decided to allow a constitutional reform process to begin… The Lady is the most powerful person in the country because she is well respected by the people, but she is powerless – she doesn’t have authority in parliament. Historically, however, the NLD has led change in the country. Right now, the government knows that it has to move, that it can’t remain sitting in the same chair.
Under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, 25% of all parliamentary seats are awarded to the military. With this in mind, can the country ever truly be a democracy?
Having the military in parliament is not democratic. To remove them, we need to change the constitution. Getting rid of the military completely, however, is impossible right now – changes need to be made slowly. We will be having elections every four years. If 25% of the parliament is military right now, in the next election it should be 20%, then 15% and so on until they are out of parliament.
What are your predictions for Myanmar’s 2015 election?
In my opinion, the NLD will win a landslide victory. In the meantime, however, we need to make sure that the military is not afraid of us. We need to show them that we are willing to cooperate in parliament. Even if they lose, we’d try to form a coalition government with them.
What do you think is driving the ethnic unrest that is currently being seen in the country? How can these issues be resolved?
Myanmar is facing two main problems right now. One is an ethnic problem. We need to decentralise power and give more authority to the states. To do this, we need to consult with ethnic leaders. Another problem facing the country is democratic values. Freedom doesn’t mean anarchy. Right now, the people don’t know how to use their freedom. Regarding the country’s Muslims, they should be given a chance to live and work here. Those who are eligible for citizenship should be given proper rights. Those who are not eligible should be given a chance to apply. That being said, Muslims – especially those in Rakhine state – should understand themselves. Historically, there is no such thing as ‘Rohingya’. These people are from Bangladesh. Citizenship for them is possible, but being defined as a distinct ethnic group is not.
Are you optimistic about Myanmar’s future?
I don’t feel free – not yet. There is a lot more work to do in terms of democratic reform. Sometimes I’m afraid that there will be a U-turn: that things will turn back to the way they were before. I don’t want the younger generation to have the same experience that I did, so I am trying to make the reform process a reality. By 2020, I hope that I will finally be able to feel free. Then I’d just want to be an ordinary person, not a politician. It’s important for us to let the younger generation take control of the country.
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