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It may not be quite the “team of rivals” that US President Abraham Lincoln formed to lead his country through a crisis that threatened to pull it apart, but Burma’s new “national reconciliation” cabinet includes some strange bedfellows.
Drawing not only from the ranks of the military that persecuted the democratic opposition for decades, the cabinet lineup announced yesterday also makes room for two ex-military men from the ruling party that was routed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in last year’s national elections.
As a lawmaker with the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Thura Aung Ko may seem an unlikely cabinet colleague for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is set to assume four ministerial posts. But the 68-year-old former brigadier-general said it came as no surprise when he was nominated to head the newly formed Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs.
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, he makes clear that he has long been on Suu Kyi’s list of potential partners in governing Burma through the next stage of its delicate transition to democracy.
“A couple of years ago, I was personally requested by the NLD chairperson [Suu Kyi] to take on a necessary role to help serve the interests of the country,” he said. “I promised to serve in any role to the best of my ability.”
When the offer was repeated last month, the former deputy-minister for religious affairs under the junta that ruled until 2011 said he was ready to take on a portfolio that was both familiar to him and a growing challenge in Burma’s new social and political climate.
“One of the biggest challenges the NLD-led government will face will be from groups or individuals who long to go back to military dictatorship, who will try to obstruct the new government via various means–particularly by fueling religious tensions,” he said.
“With this in mind, the NLD chairperson asked me about a month ago to take up a position that I served in for about 11 years, to ensure the stability and prosperity of the Sasana [religion] and the equality of the four major faiths [Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism].”
As the minister responsible for maintaining religious harmony, Aung Ko said it would be important for Burma’s various faith organisations to join hands to prevent the sort of violence that has marred the country’s reputation over the past few years.
“If hatred spreads among the Buddhist community, it should be stopped through coordination with the national and regional Sangha Mahanayaka committees and disciplinary bodies, and with political and religious awareness,” he said. “The problem of religious hatred should be prevented by religious means.”
Asked about his own political conversion–he and Thura Shwe Mann, another senior USDP politician and a leading figure in the former junta, were sidelined by their party for getting too close to the NLD–Aung Ko explained that he had come to see that Burma’s half-century of military rule had left the country impoverished and its people vulnerable to exploitation in foreign lands.
“When the country was ruled by the coup makers [who seized power in 1962 and 1988], Burmese citizens were treated with disdain when they arrived at international airports–we were looked upon as a bunch of thieves.
“Since the country became a democratic union in 2011, we experience this less and less. But even though we are a resource-rich country, mismanagement of the economy continues to drive people to other countries to work as housemaids, odd jobbers and prostitutes.”
The only way Burma would ever rise above its current status as one of the world’s poorest nations, he said, would be “to bring about a genuine federal and democratic republic in which all ethnicities can enjoy equality. And the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only party that can make this happen.”
This stance hasn’t made him popular with his former military colleagues, who have long seen themselves as the nation’s saviours and the only force standing between a unified Burma and national disintegration. But Aung Ko said that even being called a traitor doesn’t bother him, as he knows he’s acting in the best interests of the country.
“After I joined the military academy at the age of 17, I recited a military oath every day that said, first and foremost, that we must ‘maintain and respect our loyalty to the country and people.’ Loyalty to the country and people is the most honourable thing, not loyalty to an individual or an organisation.
“I don’t care what people say to criticise me. I intend to do my best physically and mentally to serve the interests of the country and the people.”
Reporting by Aye Nai