NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — The bloodless shift to democratization has been the greatest accomplishment of Myanmar’s 4-year transition from military to civilian rule, Myanmar President Thein Sein told the Mainichi Shimbun in an exclusive April 9 interview.
However, Thein Sein also stated that Myanmar had serious problems that needed to be addressed, including religious tension and peace talks with ethnic insurgent groups.
The interview with the Mainichi was Thein Sein’s first ever with a Japanese newspaper in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw. The following is the full text of Thein Sein’s comments.
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Mainichi Shimbun: What is your main accomplishment regarding the reform process? And, conversely, is there anything you feel that has not been accomplished enough so far?
President Thein Sein: I have gone through many matters regarding the reform process during my four-year period. There are some things that have been accomplished and others that have not been. There are many accomplishments, if you count them one by one.
Out of these accomplishments, I might point out our main one. We were able to transform from a military government to a people-elected democratic government, smoothly and without any bloodshed.
There are also things that have not been accomplished as much as they should have been.
As you already know, forms of racial and religious conflict have been occurring in Rakhine state. These matters have not been solved until now. We are doing our best to solve these problems.
Another problem relates to peace. Our ultimate objective would be to obtain lasting peace, after the termination of armed conflict that has been occurring for over sixty years. We have been striving stage by stage for four years now to achieve peace. At present, we are at the stage of a draft agreement for the cessation of armed conflict. We still have a lot of work to do.
Another main thing that has not been accomplished as much is the economy. In the economic sector, the GDP rate has increased substantially, but per capita income … is still less. We are seeking to get the per capita income between $3,000 and $5,000. Right now, it is only at $1,000. This is what should have been accomplished more.
Mainichi Shimbun: Why do we term the democratization process of this country as “a disciplined democracy”?
President Thein Sein: Having discipline is not only for democracy. We need to have discipline everywhere. There is discipline at school, even from childhood. Children need to become disciplined. There are also rules and regulations when you join the workforce or the government ministries. We have to abide by these rules and regulations.
When talking about discipline, there are two parts. The first part is abiding discipline out of your own conscience. Japan is our model regarding discipline. The Japanese are well disciplined right from their childhood and student life. And you also take responsibility out of your conscience.
Another part relates to keeping discipline … by our laws. We have to abide by these laws.
We refer to “disciplined democracy” when we abide discipline out of our own conscience, and also when we abide the respective laws that are issued. This is not only for our country. It is relevant to other countries and people as well.
Mainichi Shimbun: It seems there are problems regarding lasting peace with ethnic groups. Besides mistrust on both sides, what other factors are involved?
President Thein Sein: Conflict with national groups started (at the time of) our independence. The British colonialists applied divide and rule policy when we were still under them. Their rule in the hill regions and the plains was different. There was barely any communication amongst the ethnic groups.
Hence, when we gained independence in 1948, there was mistrust among the ethnic (groups). Whatever they wanted, they demanded by using their arms, and since then, the armed conflicts started. Besides, the ethnic (groups) look out only for their race or region or ideology, and these things have been rooted in them for about sixty years. These feelings cannot disappear or be erased easily. As long as these feelings remain, it would be hard to build trust. These are all obstacles, which are now solved considerably due to (making) our best efforts for four years. Even now, we have signed a draft agreement for building up peace, after deciding (on the) cessation of attacks and conflicts. Very soon, after signing the peace agreement, we’ll enter into a political dialogue. We have to work until we gain lasting peace.
Mainichi Shimbun: Do you think the ethnic issue is related to the amendment of the constitution? If so, why?
President Thein Sein: The ethnic conflict is partly related to the amendment of the constitution. The ethnic conflict did not break out because of the issue regarding amendment of the constitution. The ethnic conflicts started in 1948, since when the independence was gained. This constitution emerged only in 2008. On one side, the ethnic conflict happened before the emergence of the constitution. But, on the other side, there have been many issues regarding ethnic affairs which have been mentioned in the constitution. There are also demands that rights of the ethnic (groups) should also be added in the constitution. That’s why we can say that, on one side these matters are related, and on the other side they are not. These matters are partly related, because to solve this conflict, they want their wishes and desires to be included in the amendment of the constitution.
Mainichi Shimbun: Now that the draft text of the nationwide ceasefire agreement has been signed, do you think it is time to amend the constitution, especially Section 436?
President Thein Sein: Regarding amendment of the constitution, there is already included “amendment” in the constitution itself, to amend, if necessary. Therefore, to amend the constitution, if the country’s situation calls for it, according to the constitution, one, the Parliament has the responsibility. There are already included (sections) for the Parliament to do its part. There is also included the part of amending with (a) referendum, after taking the desires of the people into account and holding a referendum. We have already included ways to amend the constitution. If there is a necessity to amend, like I mentioned earlier, it could be amended by the two methods pointed out by the constitution.
Mainichi Shimbun: If the constitution is not amended, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would not be able to become president. So, what kind of a political role do you envision for her?
President Thein Sein: This is in two parts. The first part, whether or not to amend the constitution would depend on the decision made by the members of parliament, elected by the people. So, some parts of how to amend it can be done by the members of parliament. Some other parts to be amended should be done only after getting to know what the people desire. This is one part.
The question regarding “if the constitution is not amended” is only an opinion. So, whether it is amended or not, the path that (Daw) Aung San Suu Kyi takes, she has to choose her own aspiration and path herself.
Mainichi Shimbun: You and Daw Suu took a picture in front of Bogyoke Aung San’s portrait after meeting with Daw Suu for the first time. It symbolized the reconciliation between the government and Daw Suu. Was this your idea, or if it was someone else’s, whose idea was it? If it was your idea, what were the thoughts behind it? During the meeting, how did you persuade Daw Suu to work together with you?
President Thein Sein: After meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we happened to take a picture. There are portraits of consecutive Presidents, including General Aung San’s portrait, in my office. Her father General Aung San’s portrait is also there. We have portraits of consecutive Prime Ministers as historical records hung there as well. Since I and she met in that room, it happened that the picture was taken under General Aung San’s portrait. This is not the only time we met. At that time, we met in that room, and it so happened that we took that picture. Similarly, we often meet each other in other rooms.
Regarding how I persuaded her to work together, actually I did not persuade her. I just told her my concept. I told her that we are working for the country, and for its benefit, and that we will have differences. There would be things that we do not agree (on), but we have the same attitude for the country. I told her my concept that we will work hand in hand together on matters that we agree upon, and that we’ll find answers on what we do not agree (on) by meeting together often. This was not persuading or organizing her.
Mainichi Shimbun: What will be your policy on the amendment of the constitution during your six-way talks tomorrow?
President Thein Sein: The six-way talks tomorrow (April 10) are ones that have been demanded by the Parliament. So, I have to first listen to and study the Parliament’s opinion. I can decide only after reflecting on their discussions and opinion. It is difficult to say (my policy) at present.
Mainichi Shimbun: Did Senior General Than Shwe leave you any suggestion or message when you succeeded him as the nation’s leader? Will you leave the same for your successor?
President Thein Sein: All our leaders, including Senior-General Than Shwe, trained and nurtured us in the military. Not only Senior-General Than Shwe, all our other leaders would give advice to their juniors. They would have two points. One is to work for the good of the country, and the other is to work with goodwill. All leaders would give similar advice. I will also have to give (a) similar message — work for the good of the country and work with goodwill — to future leaders and my successors.
Mainichi Shimbun: Regarding corruption, we have a saying in Japan that a clear stream is avoided by fish. There is a tradition of giving gifts in Myanmar, and sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between gifts and bribes. How do you see the current situation in Myanmar, in terms of corruption? What can you do to improve the situation?
President Thein Sein: Giving gifts is not only a Myanmar tradition. Japanese people have that tradition, too. You give gifts of food and other presents to those who are friendly with you. Some give useful things as gifts. Some give gifts like pictures to remember — photos or scenic pictures. This is not only unique to us; it is the same for the Japanese. This giving is caused by having a friendly spirit.
Another type is giving of your own will money or some other thing to someone who has solved a problem for you. This you give of your own free will.
The third type is asking for something in return for doing something for you. It is like demanding. This is coercing you and putting you in a corner. This is called corruption.
You can see these three types in other countries, other governments and other organizations, as well.
The last type, corruption, demanding something in return, is known only to the two persons concerned, and others do not know about it. If the person who has to give bribes is not satisfied and puts up a complaint, there are laws dealing with that. Corruption could be effectively prevented by taking effective legal action. At present, we are implementing just that. It is the same in other countries, too. If a person is not satisfied about corruption here, s/he can directly put up a complaint to the President. There is a group organized at the President’s Office to resolve their complaints. An Anti-corruption Commission has also been legally formed in Myanmar. We can gradually eliminate corruption this way, not only in our country, but in other countries, too.
Mainichi Shimbun: If you are elected as President for a second term, what would be your first priority?
President Thein Sein: Before talking about the first priority, the main point is whether I am going to run (in) the elections or not. I have always expressed my opinion. I am about 70 now, my health and my heart condition is not good. If possible, I want to rest. But I have to consider the country’s situation and the people’s condition. Right now, I haven’t decided whether I am going to run (in) the elections or not. It’s too early yet.
Mainichi Shimbun: I think the role of the military is very crucial in this country. Could you explain how it could be crucial?
President Thein Sein: I am also a soldier. I was in the military for about 45 years. You cannot ignore the military’s role in Myanmar history. Similarly, you cannot leave its role in politics. It is because the military is an organization that joined hands with the people in achieving independence right from the beginning. After independence, the country was governed by (a) multi-party democratic system. At that time, due to applying of “divide and rule” policy by the colonialists, armed groups emerged around the country, which the parliamentary democratic system could not keep under control. So, the military had to take over the responsibility. Whenever the country faces hardships, or (is) in chaos and about to break up, or when there is possible bloodshed, the military always stood firm and took the responsibility of the country. Therefore, the role of the military is crucial in Myanmar.
Mainichi Shimbun: I think there are two types of political leadership. Simply saying, one is a collective consensus leadership, and the other is an individual showing strong leadership. I’d like to know the actual process of decision making in your government.
President Thein Sein: In leadership, individual decision can cause many mistakes. Collective consensus leadership causes the least mistakes. Therefore, our leadership is not implemented by an individual. The government has a cabinet. If there is a decision to be made in the cabinet, all the ministers meet together and decide.
Also, according to the constitution, if there are urgent issues regarding the nation’s defense and security, the National Defense and Security Council has been formed. The President, the two vice-presidents, the Parliament chairmen, and military leaders are members of this council. The Home Ministry is also included. If there are urgent defense and security issues, this council makes critical decisions. I do not make a decision myself, but conform to what this council decides. So, this is not an individual leadership, but a collective consensus leadership.