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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Future Visions of Myanmar

Oct. 2, 2015

Myanmar has been drawing the world's attention as it moves toward a general election in November. It will be the first of its kind since military rule ended 4 years ago. As campaigning begins, NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden spoke with a prominent figure in Myanmar about the election and his country's future.

Last month, a Japanese cultural prize went to Thant Myint-U. It recognized his efforts to provide a vision for the country, and to promote sustainable urban development in Myanmar.

"Finding strengths in diversity, and building an inclusive 21st century identity is Myanmar’s core challenge today," Thant Myint-U said upon receiving the award in Japan.

Thant Myint-U was born in New York. He's the grandson of U Thant, the first Asian secretary general for the United Nations.

Thant Myint-U had worked on UN peacebuilding operations in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. After Myanmar's military rule came to an end, Thant Myint-U relocated there, and later became an advisor to the country's president.

Given his experience, he's gained a reputation as an interlocutor within the international community. World leaders such as Barack Obama have been seeking to meet with him when they visit the country.

Thant Myint-U says that the election will be a significant part of Myanmar's democratization process.

"It's a much more liberal political environment than we've seen over the last 4 or 5 decades," he said. "I think what's important is at least to lock in the progress or the changes, the liberalizations that have happened so far."

The vote is likely to be a contest between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, and the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The NLD needs to win nearly 70 percent of the remaining seats to secure a majority. This is because a quarter of the seats in Myanmar's parliament go to the military.

Doden: Do you think Aung San Suu Kyi and her party winning a landslide victory is a likelihood?

Thant Myint-U: Judging from the crowds who receive her in different towns that she's visited, even just over the last week or two, I think her popularity is still very great. I think it would be a big surprise to everyone if the NLD didn't emerge as the biggest party after the elections. They have to win much more of the seats contested because the army has twenty five percent. So it's very possible that no single party will win. So between the NLD, the USDP, the Ethnic Minority Party, the army, they will have to find some coalition, so to speak, to be able to not just nominate but appoint the new president.

Doden: Some say, as a result, ethnic minority parties will have casting votes. Do you agree?

Thant Myint-U: It's very possible. You could have a situation where the USDP is not the biggest party, but with support from, say the military seats in Parliament and one or more of the Ethnic Minority Parties, is able to cross the fifty percent mark.

Doden: It has been said that the government or the military will respect the outcome of the polls. Is that credible?

Thant Myint-U: Yes, I think that's very likely Because in a way it's, you know, this is a constitution that the armed forces have designed over fifteen, almost twenty years. This is a constitution where they felt The armed forces are guaranteed a great degree of autonomy. And so there are lots of insurances in place that actually make it much less likely that the military wouldn't accept the results of a free and fair poll.

As an internationally recognized historian, Thant Myint-U captured Myanmar's untold history in his best-selling books. He examined the past to explain the present predicaments.

Many of Myanmar's historic structures are from the British colonial era. The buildings have high cultural value.

However, as the country's economy has rapidly grown, old buildings have been demolished in a development boom. The new construction clearly stands out against the landscape.

To preserve the historic landmarks, Thant Myint-U founded a non-profit organization in 2012.

Doden: What do you want to achieve through your activities at the Yangon Heritage Trust?

Thant Myint-U: We had to put conservation efforts within the framework, the broader framework of how the city should grow and modernize. And you see this in so many cities, especially in Europe which have done a fantastic job in preserving the best of their past and having thriving dynamic modern cities.

When a massive luxury real estate project was to be built near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the spiritual heart of Myanmar, people came out fiercely against it. The government has now withdrawn approval for the development.

Thant Myint-U: This government is far more sensitive to popular protest and popular feelings than any government that we've had in generations. Social media is very important right now as well as the traditional media. It's, one could say, surprising that with such a high value project, that the government was willing to take into account the feelings of civil society, representatives and others.

Doden: Let's say in twenty or thirty year's time in your children's generation perhaps, what do you want the country and the city to look like?

Thant Myint-U: I think people want the greater voice in their choice of leaders. But also, people desperately want peace, they want electricity, they want better jobs, they want better opportunities for their kids. I think many people want to make sure the government is more accountable. And for Myanmar as a whole, I think if we can develop that inclusive identity, if we see peace. If we see development, then Myanmar's natural role is to be this crossroads between East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Aiko Doden joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to further discuss the topic.

Shibuya: With so much focus on development and business opportunities these days, it's amazing that those historic buildings have remained untouched.

Doden: They were preserved by accident because the country was isolated from the rest of the world under the military regime. Thant Myint U has once said it is as if someone switched off the light and left the room. But things are changing as the country opens up, its historic buildings are on the verge of disappearing.

Shibuya: Now as the country tries to embrace democracy and push for modernization, why is it important to preserve its colonial architecture?

Doden: Because recognizing Myanmar's past and recognizing its identity is part of nation-building. Yangon needs a master plan for the city to design its future by connecting the past, present and future. Thant Myint U helped save more than 30 historical buildings in 2013 alone and the number is increasing. But the idea isn't just to preserve old buildings. He also recognizes the need to modernize the city, to attract business, and people and to improve basic infrastructure like water and public transit. He believes Yangon can once again become a cosmopolitan city, a window to the world.

Beppu: And for better planning of the city, politicians have a role to play and people are going to select their own shortly.

Doden: That's true, but these issues have not yet become the focal point of the election. In fact, many feel that party policies are not clear to the public either, making the election look as if it is more about popularity than policies. Election results are obviously important, but Myanmar is at a critical transition phase, of securing change. We will keep our eyes on the election results, but we also need to pay attention to how people are engaged in designing their cities, their country and their future. We have to keep in mind that democracy is a process, and it means much more than just casting votes.