Yangon We had gotten lucky. We had a meeting scheduled with the head of the Labor Committee for the National League of Democracy, which is of course the party led by Nobel Laureate and global symbol of democratic struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi, and we met the Labor chief but our real meeting was with U Tin Oo, one of the founders and leaders of the party and something of a hero in his own right, having been a general in the army who resigned in protest after the 1988 protests in the wake of the military coup in the country. All of which made our dialogue wide ranging across the whole spectrum of contemporary issues for both the party and Myanmar as a whole.
Initially, I should say that U Tin Oo is smooth as silk. I’m not sure what kind of general he was but he is clearly a politician’s politician and for an international delegation like ours his English was quick and fluent, he was urbane with an admiration of his own turns of phrase and a quick and engaging humor while hewing to the talking points without seeming to be feeding a line. His performance reminded me most of watching Ricardo Alarcon in Havana handle a question & answer session with a group of lawyers visiting there. It was a master class!
His articulation of the party positions on labor was a good example. He ridiculed the fact that the Constitution and the military objected to labor formations being called “unions” and preferred labor “associations” or “organizations” instead. He also attacked the government delays in debating the minimum wage for two months without decision, yet when pressed for the party’s recommendation he was harder to pin down. He seemed to support a variable minimum wage with different levels in each state based on cost of living, more along the Canadian system of provincial minimum wages rather than the US system with a federal minimum that the states can increase if willing.
Similarly, U Tin Oo was critical of crony capitalism and the lack of transparency in the economic system and around the military and foreign direct investment, but when Drummond Pike pressed him to describe the NLD’s economic program, there was none really, just transparency and accountability. The NLD position on monopolies? No real answer.
U Tin Oo was quicker on the issue of federalism though offered no specifics. Federalism is an interesting political issue, and one where the various ethnic organizations we had met were frankly critical of NLD and even Aung San Suu Kyi for not responding to the ethnic concerns more quickly, saying she and the NLD were more interested in constitutional reforms that smoothed her path to the presidency than ones that unified the country and brought peace. “Federalism” is a code word for giving the states sufficient autonomy to stay in the Myanmar union while protecting their unique cultures, religious preferences, and ethnic communities from the current policies of forced assimilation. The military party tries to define federalism as breaking apart the country, while the ethnic parties argue that it may be the only way of uniting the country. U Tin Oo’s deftness in wrapping the NLD around federalism in our meeting was an indication of their willingness to absorb the issue if they could.
By the end of the meeting U Tin Oo was reasonably frank with us. The NLD, like so many of the groups we had visited, saw their best strategy as trying not to push too hard on the existing government. He repeated that Aung San Suu Kyi had said she could “work” with the president, and they were navigating that risky proposition with an eye on history and with methodical and tentative advances. Clearly the NLD believes the 2015 election is theirs to lose, and having won before and seen the military wrest away the victory, they are obviously committed to a constructive tension but overwhelmingly to making sure nothing spooks the tenuous political climate before people have the opportunity to pull the levers and make it stick.
The history in Myanmar is impossible to ignore and the trepidation is everywhere and in every conversation, so who can say that the U Tin Oo is not absolutely correct in articulating a strategy of keeping the party’s head down and running out as much of the clock as they can until their victory is impossible to be denied.