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Ethnic Affairs Minister: the mandate and its executive power from the Lady’s lips

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A ministerial post is a role of honor and privilege to the person appointed by an elected government in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Burma’s president appointed a Minister for Ethnic Affairs in early April for the first time in the over half a century. The last similar post was a Minister for Cultural Affairs appointed in 1958-1962.

Pyidaungsu Minister of Ethnic Affair, Nai Htet Lwin (Photo: BBC)
Pyidaungsu Minister of Ethnic Affair, Nai Htet Lwin (Photo: BBC)

The new post, as under a direct appointment by the President, has been awarded to a Mon ethnic person, a Mon politician from Mon State. However, this installation has sparked controversial in the public sphere in terms of its mandate and executive power, let alone the nature of the appointment. This analysis highlights the trend of Mon politicians in the modern era engaging with Bamar’s political elites, to positive or negative ends in their political career.

The truth is that each ministerial appointment to an ethnic person always sparks controversial in a country like Burma where the inter-ethnic divide itself is part of the complex due to the diverse populations within the country.

Nonetheless, the NLD’s control of the Union-level executive affords it the constitutional prerogative to form its state-level counterparts across all 14 states and divisions in Burma. Additionally, the party sought collaboration in the form of ministerial posts, most prominently the Union-level ethnic affairs minister portfolio that ultimately went to Mon political veteran Nai Thet Lwin. Prior to his appointment, an NLD offer went out to the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which declined the invitation to hold the seat in the Naypyidaw cabinet, reported the Irrawaddy on the 2nd week of April.

The NLD’s government can appoint anyone, regardless of race or religion, if the person is deemed to be closely associated with its own elites. It is not a healthy theory for debating whom shall be appointed in this context.

Minister for Ethnic Affairs, and other ministers such as Border Affairs, Home Affairs and Defense are directly instructed the mandate or role by the President, in theory. However, the instructions are usually issued by Commander in Chief of the Burma’s Tatmadaw (Defense Force), in practice. In other words, Minister for Home Affairs is the most powerful post and ministry in recent past and current administration in Burma. The Home Affairs Ministry directly controls the Police Force and also indirectly engages with judicial matters from the past 50 years.

Another post, such as Minister for Border Affairs, was only created in 2010, after a new constitution was amended by the previous military authority. In fact, it is an extension of the Military in terms of collecting data for intelligence on the ground in dealing with ethnic armed organizations or the Border Guards circle. One more point that must be remembered by the public at large is that Minister for Ethnic Affairs is not mandated to sit with the nation’s higher post on the National Security Council (Committee), unlike Minister for Home and Border Affairs.

In practice, the post for Minister for Ethnic Affairs is a new appeasing policy used by previous Bamar political elites from the early independence period as a symbol of ‘respect, equality and unity’ on the surface depicting the division of political powers. The contradiction of the appointment is that the government will be installing a new Chief to lead the old Myanmar Peace Center under a new name in due time.

A document outlining the “Ministry of the State Counselor’s Office” proposal was read out in the chamber by Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than, in which the president was quoted as saying “it is necessary to have a ministry to successfully implement the goals of national reconciliation, domestic peace, national development and the rule of law”. The Speaker did not offer any indication as to who might head the new ministry and oversee its vague portfolio, but speculation has tipped Suu Kyi’s personal physician, Dr. Tin Myo Win, for the post. Dr.Tin Myo Win, long a close Suu Kyi ally, has also been given a leading role in the upcoming peace negotiations between the new government and ethnic armed groups. He is widely expected to head a new iteration of the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which Suu Kyi last week suggested would be renamed the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), reported by the Myanmar Times on the 2nd week of May.

According to a report in state-run media, the doctor’s new prominent place in Burma’s peace process was announced at Suu Kyi’s meeting with the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCMC), made up of government and military representatives, as well as non-state armed group signatories to the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).

The Minister for Ethnic Affairs shall be having a wider mandate role and power in terms of building trust in the peace process, conducting consultation on the ground with each ethnic armed group’s leaders and hearing the voice of populations in conflict zones. The Minister shall be able to access intelligence just like the Minister for Home Affairs or Border Affairs. It is an unfortunate saga that the Minister for Ethnic Affairs has been marginalized in the key decision making process over the past 30 days.

After 30 days in power, the NLD’s government has flexed its political muscles in the appointment of ministerial posts beyond public belief. The Minister is accountable to the President in theory, but in practice he or she is liable to the Lady.

In fact, it is much clearer that Minister for Ethnic Affairs has little room to move in terms of its own mandate and role until the Lady opens her mouth. This is not a healthy democratic principle but at least we have it as it is.

Time is history in politics.

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