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Future leaders stress ‘politics of the daily’

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s current president, Thein Sein, will both turn 70, so a great deal depends on future leaders. On a recent visit I caught up with two promising aspirants who focus on the “politics of the daily.”

On Sunday at sunrise I met Dr. Nyo Nyo Thinn in front of Yangon City Hall along with several hundred other people, some holding banners. She welcomed me and mentioned that this was an illegal demonstration because its permit was for 200 marchers, not 800-plus.

Nonetheless, as police looked on, the rally proceeded slowly and without incident through the traffic in the streets of central Yangon, an impressive and unlikely sight. The march was part of the international United Nations Women’s Day activities, protesting violence against women. It was also an expression of civil-society activism only five years after soldiers had slaughtered monks marching along the same streets in 2007.

Nyo Nyo Thinn, 41, was one of the organizers of the event and is a member of the regional parliament of Yangon where she represents the opposition.

I first met her in 2007 in Tokyo, where she was working as a researcher at the United Nations University. Thanks to a Japanese government scholarship, she holds a doctorate from Yokohama National University and once taught law at the now-shuttered Rangoon University.

Those credentials and experience, she says, give her credibility and influence because the Japan brand is strong in Myanmar. And unlike many politicians with their shiny new chauffeured cars, Nyo Nyo Thinn’s husband drives her around in a beaten-up 1986 Nissan Sunny.

Determined and fearless, Nyo Nyo Thinn is a force to be reckoned with and doesn’t back down. This charismatic firebrand was long an outspoken critic of the military regime that ruled Myanmar after officers carried out a coup d’état in 1988.

She bested the government-backed candidate in the constituency where Aung San Suu Kyi lives, and even managed to prevail over her slippery opponent’s allegations of campaign violations. Currently she enjoys her role as a rabble-rouser in the assembly, asking inconvenient questions and criticizing government policies.

Nyo Nyo Thinn says her main job is fighting for her constituents against local authorities — whether the police or City Hall — adding, “They hate me, but they try to smile and be welcoming.” Indeed, such is her presence that pro-reform ministers like to unleash her on the kind of middle-level officials who often stonewall reforms.

She may run in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015, but is not sure she wants to join the national fray because she thinks she can improve people’s lives more directly at the local level.

Certainly, hers is a prominent voice in local politics and she has taken the initiative to introduce free primary education in Yangon and has secured a budget to support this singular goal. Her “politics of the daily” involves “improving people’s lives in small ways” by introducing women-only buses during rush hour and bans on using plastic bags — things she learned in Tokyo.

She has also pushed the government to transfer political detainees from remote prisons to ones easier for family members to visit.

The key to democratization, she says, “is encouraging people to change themselves by raising their political and legal awareness” — while trying to help them navigate the system and get results.

Nyo Nyo Thinn believes that promoting transparency is essential to improve governance and accountability, and doing so is necessary to bolster the credibility of democratization. Widespread reports of corruption are, therefore, a sign of progress.

In her view, the ongoing political changes are sustainable, but it is important to translate reforms at the top into change at the grassroots. A key factor in this agenda is promoting the rule of law — and that means increasing the capacity of the judiciary, improving access to the legal system and cracking down on corruption.

Asserting that Ko Ko Gyi, 50, is the smartest politician in Myanmar, she introduced us. He is a leader of 88 Generation Students, a movement founded in 2005 that draws inspiration, and its name, from the military’s bloody suppression of student pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988.

Despite spending 18 years in solitary, he is philosophical about his detention and torture, noting that people identify with him and his colleagues because of all they endured.

Regarding military accountability for abuses, he says, “We are not seeking revenge, but we want a record of what happened and apologies for misdeeds. This is crucial to national reconciliation and forgiveness.” He adds, “Transparency is about the right to know.”

The public community-level activities of 88 Generation Students, the most active anti-regime, pro-democracy underground movement over the past quarter-century, began in February 2012, a sign of how far Myanmar has come in a very short time.

Simply, Ko Ko Gyi says, “We help solve people’s problems and give them a voice.” He has paid a high price for his ideals, but tells people not to fear pain or death — “as we are all born with a death sentence.”

Ko Ko Gyi is charismatic and has a wry sense of humor. Like Nyo Nyo Thinn, he is ambivalent about national politics. Currently he is involved in investigations into the Rohingya issue and a violent police crackdown on a copper mine demonstration that put two-dozen monks into hospital. He asserts that, ” the excessive use of force and misuse of authority is unacceptable.”

Noting that establishing the rule of law means reviewing all existing laws, he contradicts Pres. Thein Sein, who recently proclaimed there was no need to subject more than 20 laws passed in the current parliament to constitutional review. In Ko Ko Gyi’s view, land grabs are an increasingly crucial factor stoking instability, as local farmers seek to defend their rights in an opaque system.

He hints that he may lead a plunge by 88 Generation Students into national politics, saying, “Politics is about intangibles. We need to focus on the emotions of public stakeholders and build trust.”

Meeting him and Nyo Nyo Thinn is to feel reassured that there are very talented next-generation leaders ready to tackle Myanmar’s daunting challenges.