Myanmar: The Way Ahead
Jul. 3, 2015
Myanmar has been the focus of an international outcry over the Rohingya boat people crisis. Myanmar does not acknowledge the Rohingyas as an ethnic minority and refers to the group by their residency in Rakhine State, in the nation’s west.
The country’s president, Thein Sein is working to solve the issue and has spoken to NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden in an exclusive interview about one of the biggest challenges his nation faces and its path to democracy.
Doden: All eyes are on the situation in Rakhine state. What solution as Myanmar government would you be able to bring to that issue?
Thein Sein: The main religion among the Rakhine people is Buddhism. When the country became a colony of Britain, workers were brought from Bangladesh. Some of them stayed in the state but they are not Rakhine people and have a different religion and language. The state is economically poor. I think that if economic and social developments are made which may lead to an improved relationship between the two communities the ethnic problem may be solved as a result.
There is an ethnic problem in which people leave the country and drift ashore. They are not Rakhine people. The government of Myanmar provided necessary supplies to refugees from other countries and sent them back home. Some people criticize Myanmar and say its government is persecuting people on religious grounds. But this is incorrect.
Beppu: What do you make of the president’s comment on the Rohingya issue?
Doden: This issue is politically very sensitive in Myanmar, especially with the election scheduled later this year. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country with 70 percent of the population being ethnic Burmese. The Rohingya issue and the ethnic minority issue can be politically sensitive because a politician or a party can lose the support of the majority.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has worked tirelessly to promote human rights, has been relatively quiet on these issues given their sensitivity. But the president did mention giving citizenship to the so-called Rohingya people in Rakhine State and alleviating poverty in the region because poverty or wealth disparities could aggravate the already existing tension in the region.
Beppu: I remember you told us before when we discussed before about the challenges of the country’s democratic path that ethnic issue holds the key to success for its country’s democracy and even for peace and security.
Doden: We tend to measure countries by economic growth and GDP, but peace and stability is a prerequisite for economic growth. In Myanmar, there is the Rohingya issue as well as the peace talks with the ethnic armed groups who have been at war for more than half a century. The talks are at a critical phase: The ethnic armed groups have been invited to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, but the prospect for this looks bleak, and it’s feared that the momentum for peace could slip away. That’s why governments, politicians and investors are keen to see what lies ahead for Myanmar’s democracy.
Thein Sein attended an economic forum in Tokyo on the sidelines of a regional summit. About 800 Japanese business representatives joined the discussion which explored opportunities in the Mekong region including Myanmar.
Myanmar changed from military to civilian rule in 2011. Since then, it’s been attracting foreign investment. It has enjoyed strong economic growth: more than 7 per cent in the last fiscal year. However, the nation has been gripped by conflict for more than half a century as government forces battle against armed ethnic groups wanting greater autonomy. A ceasefire remains uncertain.
A general election is scheduled for November. It will be the first nationwide poll since civilian rule was introduced in 2011 and will serve as a test to see if Myanmar is on a genuine path to democracy.
Doden: Since you assumed the post of president, how do you evaluate the process of democratic reform in Myanmar?
Thein Sein: Our government shares the hope of the people for a peaceful transition from a military administration to democracy. That has occurred as the result of our efforts.
Doden: People are paying close attention to the upcoming election. When will the election be and do you have any plan to run for a second term? Last time you said that the time has not come yet for you to give me a clear answer.
Thein Sein: I am yet to decide whether I will run in the next election. It’s difficult to predict the results. Prior to the election, we need to confirm the country’s situation and gauge the hopes of the people. If the people want me to be their president, I will consider running. I cannot confirm this. But, I am giving the issue deep consideration. Myanmar has rich mineral resources and a large working population. But its GDP remains small. I hope Myanmar can become a middle-income country in the near future. Whoever becomes the president, I want them to take the country in that direction.
Beppu: So Aiko, I heard you pressing him and asking if he’s willing to run again for the presidency. What did you understand from his words?
Doden: He had his entire cabinet in the room as he spoke, so his comment came across as quite official, with an implication that his cabinet is in support of his policies and ideas. There was speculation that he might retire and withdraw from politics, so the fact that the president hinted in this interview that he was willing to consider the second term is therefore quite a piece of news. This is because the next election in November will be the first one since the military government stepped down to usher in a democratic government in 2011. This election will define the way forward for Myanmar, which is still at an infant stage as a democracy as the president said.
Shibuya: What about Aung San Suu Kyi? Is she not a strong candidate, being the leader of the largest opposition party and a Nobel Laureate?
Doden: Her party, the largest opposition party NLD, or National League for Democracy, is expected to win big, but Suu Kyi herself is barred from becoming the president under the Constitution. The Constitution says those who are with children who are citizens of a foreign country are barred from the presidency, and Suu Kyi’s two sons are British citizens. There was a move to amend the Constitution in June, but lawmakers rejected constitutional changes that would have lowered the barriers to allow Suu Kyi to become president. With the option of Suu Kyi assuming the presidency de facto out of the window now, President Thein Sein must have decided that the timing was good for him to hint at his intention. Whether he has the full support from the military, we will have to see.
As the country achieves economic growth, it has a role to play in complicated foreign relations involving its neighbors.
Doden: With regard to Myanmar’s foreign policy, China has been a more assertive country. Maritime expansion in the South China Sea might be one example. But China is a major trade partner to Myanmar, also Myanmar’s neighbor. How would you manage the relations with China?
Thein Sein: As you know, Myanmar lies between two economic powers - China and India. We need to maintain friendly relationships with them as they are developing. Myanmar’s democracy is in progress. We believe that China will accept our policy of having diplomatic relations with various countries. As we have democratized, investment from China has increased.
Doden: And what is the role for Japan? What form of cooperation or investment for Myanmar would you expect from Japan?
Thein Sein: The areas where we want investment from Japan in particular are roads, bridges, power, industrial zones, gas and other infrastructure projects. We also want Japan to build plants to provide job opportunities for our workers.
Beppu: Since the end of military rule in 2011, it seems like many countries, the United States, China and also Japan, have a strong interest in Myanmar. After the elections, what do you think this country can give back to the international community?
Doden: Don’t you think that things have changed quite a bit. It isn’t that long ago that the country was identified as "an outpost of tyranny" by the United States, and for a long time Myanmar was considered a “boutique issue,” attracting attention, sensational at times, important perhaps, but not of the highest priority. But everyone seems to want to do business with Myanmar now, as “Asia’s last frontier,” as they say, and people see so many opportunities in the country. Myanmar does offer a wealth of opportunity -- it’s a country rich in natural resources and labor, which constitutes a key component of ASEAN connectivity that seeks to unite the region as a market.
Many countries today have a stake in Myanmar. It’s no longer a boutique issue, and they would prefer gradual evolution rather than a revolution. In that regard, I believe President Thein Sein is confident that he has won the trust of the international community in terms of how he has managed the transition from the military rule to a civilian government. Challenges do lie ahead in Myanmar, but the international community continues to wish for a politically and economically stable Myanmar.