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Thein Sein: ‘With freedom comes responsibility’

During Thein Sein’s stop in Norway during his five-country tour of Europe, DVB’s Deputy Executive Director Khin Maung Win sat down for an exclusive interview with the president. Burma’s leader addressed ongoing conflicts in the country, media reform and whether or not he’ll run in the 2015 elections. 

Why have you decided to visit Norway first during your tour of Europe?

I choose Norway as my first destination because this is a country that has provided the people of Burma with a lot of support – they provided funding to help preserve Innlay Lake and provided money for the country’s health and education sectors. They also established the [Myanmar] Peace Centre in the country, which will help with rehabilitation work after peace [is established in conflict areas]. Norway also took the lead in finding international donors for Burma.

Most significantly, when we had talks with Paris Club members regarding the decades of debt we owed them – at first they were reluctant on what percentage they could provide and the percentage they would be able to wave off. But then Norway, taking the lead, waved off 50 percent of our debt and also 50 percent of additional debt we had and other countries followed suit.

During the press conference here, you spoke about opening new embassies. What is the plan regarding this? When do you think it will happen?

Norway has opened its embassy in [Burma], which was opened by the Norwegian Prime Minister during his trip to the country. However, they don’t have an ambassador yet, but it will happen soon. Currently, [diplomatic communications] are channelled through the British ambassador. We are considering appointing an ambassador in Norway [to represent our missions to] the four [Scandinavian] countries – Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, but we haven’t made a decision yet.

Regarding investment from Norwegian companies, there are concerns that the Burmese government would give special favours to Norwegian companies.

Investment [procedures] will be undertaken in accordance with the law. Now the Foreign Investment Law is out and there will be no special favours. Everyone will get an equal opportunity under the law.

I would like to ask about amending the constitution. We’ve heard government officials mention this before – minister Soe Thane also has said the constitution should be revised. What is the government’s opinion? Analysts point to the fact that the government is made primarily up of Union Solidarity and Development Party members and without the party’s support, revising the constitution would be impossible. What is your take on this?

Amending the constitution is not up to the government. It’s up to the wishes of the representatives in the parliament. And the people elect the representatives, so this is mainly up to the people’s desire. The government has no comment as to whether the constitution should be revised or not. If the majority agrees with it, then we will also agree.

The democratic reforms in Burma have won support from the international community. At the same time there are ongoing crises in Kachin and Arakan states. Can you explain what measures you have employed to provide sustainable peace in these areas?

Now we are engaging in a peace process. Of the 11 armed groups, we have signed ceasefires with 10 of them and also additional agreements such as: to co-exist forever without breaking away from the union, the three national causes, etc. There’s a lot to follow up on with political negotiations now.

But we can’t say there is peace just now because we have ceasefires. Ceasefires aren’t enough for sustainable peace. There is more to discuss. We are looking to engage in a political dialogue soon and rather than have the government leading the meeting, the talks will also include appropriate representatives from the parliament, the government and civil society groups as well as ethnic leaders and representatives.

Has this been discussed with the parliament or civil society groups yet?

The peace process will be conducted in line with three steps – [administrative] level ceasefires first, then union-level engagement to sign an agreement and the final step, as the government has clearly stated, will be led by the parliament. The parliament will have to form a [relevant committee] because there are various ethnic representatives in the parliament. So the parliament should follow up on this.

Critics have been saying that – in order to solve the crisis in western Burma’s Arakan state regarding the [Rohingya], the 1982 Citizenship Law, which the international community considers to be too strict, should be revised. Does the government or the parliament have any plans to revise the 1982 Citizenship Law?

For now, the government has no plan to revise the law. I don’t know what the parliament’s opinion on this is, but from what I learnt, the law intends to protect the nation and some time was taken to draft it with input from experts.

I see that even in Norway, an [immigrant] can become a citizen after living in the country for seven years. But there are different situations in different countries. We have a different history, situation and population than Norway. I believe the law is meant to protect the country and the government has no plan to revise it. But I don’t know how the parliament sees it.

We’ve heard you’ve stressed that a free media provides the country with its fourth pillar. How far has the media reform process gone? And what does the future hold regarding this sector?

We have granted a lot of freedom to the media unlike in the old days. There are no more restrictions whatsoever. We formed [media] bodies to oversee the media’s work. There are two key things – the media plays an important role in the country’s development and in democratic reforms, and the media needs to point out the government’s weak points. It also has the responsibility to provide the people with accurate information. With freedom comes responsibility, and if we can apply that, I believe the media in Burma will develop further from where it is now.

Last question, will you run again in the 2015 elections? Previously, we heard that you planned to retire, but after the USDP congress, we heard that you might run again if the people desire it. What is your plan?

I’ve been asked this question quite frequently and I answered, that personally, I would like to retire due to my age and health. But I don’t know how the country will turn out in the future, so it depends on what the people wish for. Personally I plan to retire, but I will make my decision depending on the country’s situation.


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