U Win Htein's pas de deux

U Win Htein has been busy since last year’s election in his unofficial new role as a one-man information clearinghouse for the National League for Democracy. Other longtime party spokespersons, such as U Nyan Win, aren’t returning phone calls as often, while the NLD veteran and confidante of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has become the de facto voice of the new order.

The portly 73-year-old certainly has time to spare, after he decided not to recontest his Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Meiktila before the November vote. When religious violence shook the city in 2013 and claimed the lives of more than 40 people, a group of his constituents unsuccessfully petitioned for his removal after he told the media the horrific incident made him “ashamed” of his hometown. (His seat, and Meiktila’s two regional constituencies, were three of the 14 contests the NLD lost in Mandalay Region last November, in an otherwise overwhelming victory).

A founding member of the NLD, U Win Htein’s two decades in prison has not dimmed his sense of duty and devotion to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party cause. Speaking to Frontier last September, he pledged to remain deeply involved in politics at a party level, despite chronic heart problems from his time behind bars requiring him to sleep with an oxygen tank.

U Win Htein’s lifetime of adversity and political struggle should be borne in mind when considering his testy exchange with a Radio Free Asia reporter last week. The discussion centred on possible candidates for the presidency ahead of the change of government in April – a question U Win Htein and the rest of the NLD have steadfastly avoided answering, citing their fear of antagonising the military.

“Don’t thank me. Think seriously before you ask me questions,” U Win Htein admonished, after again refusing to be drawn on the subject, when the reporter thanked him at the end of the interview.

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No doubt he is irritated at being repeatedly asked the question, but the exchange was indicative of more than just U Win Htein’s intransigence.

It has long been apparent that the NLD’s leadership has a poor opinion of domestic media outlets, coupled with a desire to set the party’s narrative on its own terms. Party announcements are inevitably published in D Wave, the NLD’s house journal, rather than presented to a press pack. To our knowledge, Daw Aung Suu Kyi has never granted an interview to the domestic media, instead relying on her phalanx of minders to keep her at arm’s length from journalists and maintaining her profile through usually softball interviews with foreign television networks. Most of the NLD’s MPs-elect remain subject to an edict banning them from speaking to journalists. 

Seen through the eyes of someone such U Win Htein, the party’s caution and control is warranted. Though an orderly transition to a new government now seems guaranteed, a man who languished in Insein prison for 20 years during the previous regime could be forgiven for having doubts after the experience of the 1990 election. U Win Htein’s experience in the aftermath of the Meiktila riots would have been a sobering reminder of the media’s power to distort, embellish and skew in the service of a very different agenda to his own.

But as we see in every other polity, secrecy soon becomes an end in itself when governments seek to avoid accountability. In the next five years, the NLD will inevitably make decisions that upset, disappoint and outrage its constituents. Difficult choices loom over the economic and political future of the country. If the next government refuses to conduct a dialogue with the people when these choices arise, the party will learn soon enough how swiftly political goodwill evaporates when fortunes change.

There will come a time, very soon, when a new era warrants a new approach. Will U Win Htein be ready?

This editorial originally appeared in Issue #29 of Frontier, published on January 14, 2016. 

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