2019/4, 15 January 2019
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party appointed the Yangon Region Chief Minister, Phyo Min Thein, who is also close to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Photographers captured him paying respect to retired General Khin Nyunt at an event held annually to honour senior writers on 29 December 2018.
Khin Nyunt, a former military intelligence chief widely regarded as the architect of repression of politicians and dissidents in the 1990s and 2000s, entered the literary realm by penning several political memoirs in recent years. The photographs of the two men’s encounter ignited a fierce backlash against the so-called ‘national reconciliation’ doctrine attributed to the NLD.
Since Myanmar underwent a political transition since 2010 without an elite pact between the previous military regime in power during 1988–2011 and the democratic opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, transitional justice—truth-seeking and official apology at a minimum—or its lack has been a recurrent matter of interest for the victims of the quarter-century of repression. Daw Suu herself seems to prefer dialogue over retribution. When speaking to the Burmese community in the United States in 2012, she had stated, “We must learn to compromise without regarding it as a humiliation”. Section 445 of the Myanmar constitution in force since 2011 explicitly bars legal proceedings against actions taken by members of the former military regime.
The public criticism of Phyo Min Thein and the NLD is unprecedented. NLD MPs who are former political prisoners have spoken out on social media. Min Ko Naing—arguably the second most prominent politician in Myanmar today, after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and a man who has been steadfast in his support of her and largely silent about the conduct of the NLD since it came to power—has joined the critics. In fact, he fuelled the backlash by writing a poem critical of the encounter between Phyo Min Thein and Khin Nyunt that went viral on social media. Phyo Min Thein countered the criticism by stating that he was only acting in accord with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s policy of national reconciliation between the NLD and the military. He noted that he himself was a political prisoner but that he neither holds grudges nor seeks redress.
Phyo Min Thein’s critics did not accept his explanation and the firestorm on social and traditional media continued for days. Critics of the chief minister have pointedly questioned the nature and parameters of national reconciliation between the NLD and the military, a process that they view as one-sided. They emphasize that they are ready to forgive as long as there are apologies but that they shall not forget. Although the controversy has died down, the episode serves as a reminder that the transition in Myanmar remains unsatisfactory, at least within non-NLD circles, and that some form of official recognition of and apology for the past is required at a minimum.
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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