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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The U.S. perspective would be that you have to have a strong military, but the civilians have to have the power. Our president is more powerful than our chief of staff of the armed forces. That to us is democracy. So how far can you take this reform process?

I hope that you can study our constitution. [Under it] the president has to appoint the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in our country, too.

The U.S. is also concerned about your relationship with North Korea. Senator [Richard] Lugar recently stated that your country might be developing a nuclear program with the help of the DPRK. Could you comment on this? Are you willing to sever military ties with North Korea?

We have diplomatic relations with the DPRK [but] we don't have any relations with regard to a nuclear program or military cooperation. These are only allegations. In the international arena, our country is one that stands for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. We have always abided by the resolutions of the United Nations and these are only allegations. We don't have any nuclear or weapons cooperation with the DPRK. The DPRK is not in a situation to provide assistance to our country, and we don't have the financial means to implement a nuclear program.

Are you willing to let IAEA inspectors into your country?

We are in the process of signing the additional protocol of the IAEA. This requires a study, which has to be submitted to our parliament for approval.

Is there anything you would like to say to American readers?

My message is that we are on the right track to democracy. Because we are on the right track, we can only move forward, and we don't have any intention to draw back. Our government is only about nine months old. In terms of democratic experiences and practices, we still have very little experience and practice. I don't think that we can compare with the United States - a country that has been practicing democracy for over 100 years. For democracy to thrive in our country there are two main requirements. First is to have domestic peace and stability. Second is that we need economic development and we are taking necessary measures for our economy to develop so our people will have a better livelihood. . . . About 3 million of our people are working in other countries. We have about a 26 percent poverty rate. That is because for over 20 years sanctions were placed on our country. Sanctions hurt the interest of our people. For that reason, there were no job opportunities in our country. If you would like to see democracy thrive in our country, you should take the necessary actions to encourage this by easing the sanctions that were placed on our country.

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If you want to build up your economy and develop it, would you be willing to privatize some industries and let foreign investors come in?

We welcome foreign investors and we have made necessary amendments to our law as it relates to foreign investment. But foreign investors will only come once sanctions have been eased up on our country.

But investors will ask for rule of law and for courts.

I don't think there are any difficulties for foreigners to make investments in our country. The only difficulty they are having is sanctions.

Are you willing to allow a free media in this country, to abolish the 1962 media law, allow daily papers to be published, and also allow for private ownership of the media?

With regards to freedom of the media, you can see that it is not like it was before. We have a daily journal published in our country and [the media] can express freely in the paper. However, we still require democratic practices. The media needs to take responsibility and proper actions. Media freedom will be based on the accountability they have.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.

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