Born in a large, academically-inclined family, Dr. Zaw Myint Maung said he had always been interested in politics but refrained from political activism at school, acutely aware his parents and eight siblings – he’s number three – could face discrimination if he did so.
His father was a lecturer at the medical university in Mandalay and also a warden of the student hall, and he had seen his politically active friends expelled from school, leaving them with no future.
When the 1988 student protests broke out, however, the young doctor could no longer resist and jumped in with both feet. He ran for and won in the 1990 elections, as a representative for Amarapura – a city in central Burma famed for its teak bridge – for the National League for Democracy (NLD) but was never allowed to take his seat.
He paid for his political activities with 19 years in some of the harshest jails in Burma. After his release in 2009, he became a member of the central executive committee of the NLD, often seen at the side of party chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi. He won a seat in the lower house for Kyauk Padaung, a constituency in Mandalay Region, in the 2012 by-elections.
In 2015, he ran for the Mandalay Region Parliament in Amarapura (1) constituency, winning 76 percent of the vote. Tipped to be the next chief minister for Mandalay – he says he knows nothing of the plans – he sat down with Myanmar Now chief correspondent Thin Lei Win to talk about the NLD’s landslide win, the move from national to regional parliament and the challenges Mandalay Region is facing.
Question: How different are your victories in the 2012 by-elections and the 2015 elections?
Answer: When I won in the 2012 by-elections, I said my life is “P-to-P”, meaning prison to parliament. I was happy because it meant I could finally realise the dream in the 1990 elections of achieving democracy and getting to the parliament. But it wasn’t very emotional. In 2015 though, it was very emotional because it was a landslide win, reversing the situation. After the 2012 by-elections, NLD had 40-plus seats and the USDP (the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party) had over 300. Now we have nearly 400 and they have 40 plus. The public has given us the responsibility, now it’s our turn to deliver.
Q: Were you surprised by the results?
A: We expected these results, because in 1990, we got 65 percent to 70 percent on average. In 2012 too we had similar results. So we thought we would get around 65 to 70 percent on average again.
Q: How was that prison to parliament route. Did you ever think this would happen while you were in jail?
A: No, I didn’t. I was detained in prisons for 19 years, nearly 20. I was released in 2009. In prison, it was very strict. We couldn’t read. We had to sit a certain way. I don’t want to rake up the past, but there wasn’t enough food to eat. It’s very difficult to live without support from home. And when I was released, the political climate was very bad. Rumours were rife that NLD would be struck off. We struggle through those times, travelling the country with a school bag. The offices were closed. When we were going around upper Burma in 2010, we had to hold meetings at 10 or 11 at night. I remember vividly that there was no one who would accept us in Naypyidaw, and we had to stay at a guesthouse. So the political expectations were very low. We were also determined to continue our work, even if our party was blacklisted because we didn’t participate in the 2010 elections. I never thought our entry to the parliament was going to be this smooth.
It was the right decision for NLD to boycott the 2010 elections. We decided we would not participate because an election without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be considered all inclusive. I think our political move was right because after the elections U Thein Sein arranged to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I think that’s how the way was opened.
Q: It’s been a long time since Burma had a smooth transfer of power. Do you feel appreciative of the USDP government for this?
A: We would need to consider this in two parts. The parliamentary transfer was very smooth. Everything was ready. This process was led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while U Win Myint and I were part of the team. It was systematic and very satisfactory. The transfer of legislative power, which has been lost in Burma for half a century, is very good.
The other part is the executive branch. Another team is responsible for this. At the moment we don’t know the details. They’ve met up with the USDP but it’s not as easy as ours.
Q: The NLD could form a government, but the bureaucratic machine – the General Administration Department (GAD) – is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, whose minister is appointed by the military. How will that work?
A: At the moment, the GAD staff works for both the state government as well as the parliament so there’s no separation of powers. The parliament should have its own staff.
It’s quite a difficult situation that the GAD is under the Ministry of Home Affairs. I understand the previous government tried to change this but was not successful.
Just the other day there was a request to put the Ministry of Immigration and Population under the Ministry of Home Affairs. We don’t agree with that at the moment. It should be discussed in the national parliament and if the parliament agrees, that’s another matter. But it will give the military more power, which already controls the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Ministry of Border Affairs. That’s one thing.
Another is that the request was sent just before the end of the parliament … We said this issue should be considered during the term of next parliament.
Q: Why didn’t you contest an upper house or lower house seat?
A: The party needs experienced people in the state and region parliaments. If we are talking about real federalism, state/region parliaments will also play an important role. If I say I want to stay in [Naypyitaw], it will be construed as me hankering for power. If I say I don’t want to, I’ll be seen as arrogant. When our party leader [Aung San Suu Kyi] said I should go to the state parliament, I said yes without hesitation.
Q: Mandalay is where you were born. What challenges is the city facing?
A: Mandalay is a strategically important city. It is close to China and India. It is a major business hub. It has industrial zones, as well as many problems. The city is quite polluted with weak water sanitation and water treatment systems. There are few experts on city management and urban planning in our country. It’s all being done randomly. A major challenge is land grabbing. It is still going on. We need to resolve it. There’s still bribery and corruption. Once the NLD forms a government, there will be many challenges but there will also be many opportunities.
Q: How will you handle the heavy presence of the army in the former palace grounds?
A: We have not considered this issue. Cultural heritage should be valued. Let’s take the moat – it looks like an eyesore after it’s been renovated. It should’ve been done with the help of experts. It might now look neater, but in terms of cultural viewpoint, it has lost its value. But for now we aren’t really considering the issue of (the army in the palace grounds) at the moment. We are mainly looking at it from an economic and development viewpoint. Still, we have to be conscious of the fact that Mandalay has many tourist attractions. At some point, there might be a tourist boom.
Q: There has been reports that the military is asking for chief minister positions in some states and regions in the discussions between the NLD and the military. Who will become the chief minister of Mandalay region?
A: I didn’t move from the lower house to the state parliamentary seat in anticipation of any favours. I don’t know what I will become so I don’t know the demands of the military either. Yes, I took part in the meeting between military chief and Daw Aung Suu Kyi. But these things must be kept confidential.
Q: Mandalay is a cultural centre, but it also has lots of nationalist groups. Are you concerned that religion might be used as a political tool?
A: The emergence of nationalistic groups is a concern. We hear of pamphlets and documents being distributed (by these groups). We try to exercise caution. We are worried but the monks in Mandalay also look after the NLD. We can have dialogues with them. There are no major problems at the moment.
Q: How good is the relationship between NLD leaders and USDP counterparts?
A: I am not intimate with USDP leaders but I’m friendly with some less senior leaders like the chairmen and vice-chairmen of parliamentary committees. Of course we would still compete against each other. That’s democratic practice.
Q: Do you have any regrets in your political career?
A: This is the road I have chosen. And my family had to suffer as a result. My sons had their wants and needs and my wife could not fulfil them on her own. I want to emphasise my wife’s role. She never once complained or hesitated to come and see me in prison during those 20 years. She was responsible for nurturing my sons and daughter. I always conclude my media interviews by saying how thankful I am to have her.