Burma President Thein Sein Explains His Sweeping Reforms in His First Interview

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 19 2012 8:00 PM

The First Interview With Burma’s Reforming President

Thein Sein on the sweeping changes he has brought to Burma, including freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi.

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It depends on the elections and if she was voted for by the people or not. Once she has been elected, she will become a member of parliament. All of the cabinet ministers that we have now are appointed based on the agreement given by the parliament.

Would you like to see her become a cabinet minister?

If one has been appointed or agreed on by the parliament, we will have to accept that she becomes a cabinet member.

What is your vision for U.S.-Myanmar relations in the future? What are your hopes for that relationship and how would you like to see it evolve?

With regard to U.S.-Myanmar relations, I would like to make three points. First, we already have engagement with the United States. Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton visited our country and just today we were visited by Senator Mitch McConnell. The second point is that we are not represented by [diplomats at the] ambassadorial level. We hope the representation can be upgraded. The third point I would like to make is that the U.S. and the E.U. have had economic sanctions on our country. It has been nearly 20 years now. I would like to see them ease . . . and eventually get rid of the sanctions.

Secretary Clinton announced last week that relations would be normalized and that the U.S. and Myanmar will exchange ambassadors.

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Yes, I have heard that news also. Until today it has not been announced that there has been an appointment of an ambassador.

There are three requirements that Western countries would like to see us do. First is the release of political prisoners. Second is to hold the by-election. Thirdly, to have Aung San Suu Kyi and others participate in our political process. I believe we have accomplished these steps already. What is needed from the Western countries is for them to do their part. In taking actions with regard to the three points I have mentioned, we have done it not because others were putting pressures on our country. We did it because we felt it was necessary to do for our country.

It was not because of the pressure from the sanctions? Didn't sanctions work?

Sanctions were aimed at harming our government but, actually, they harmed the interest of our people. Nor did they affect the previous government, which actually laid down the procedures so they could hand over a democratic system for our country.

You are speaking about the seven-step program outlined in 2004?

The previous government laid down the seven-step program so they could implement a democratic system in our country. They have taken the necessary measures step by step.

They laid out the program so they could implement democracy?

Yes, it's true.

People are wondering why are you reforming now. Your answer is that this was planned a long time ago and it has been moving along in stages?

When a system needs to be changed, it cannot be done overnight. Some countries that have tried to change overnight have deteriorated. That is why we laid down the seven-step road map and have taken step-by-step measures. You can see we are a democratically elected government.

But 25 percent of the government is reserved for the military and most of the members of the government, including yourself, are former members of the military. Democracy to us means a civilian government that has power over the military.

The military is no longer involved in the executive body. Even if you look at our parliament, one-fourth is reserved for the military. We cannot leave the military behind because we require the military's participation in our country's development.