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.
Myanmar President Thein Sein
Jason Lee/Getty Images.
NAY PYI DAW, Burma
Since President Thein Sein took office nine months ago, changes have been underway in Burma, which had been ruled for years by a repressive regime. Its famous opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been freed from house arrest; political prisoners have been released; and the United States has normalized diplomatic relations with Burma, also known as Myanmar. This week, President Thein Sein granted Lally Weymouth his first interview with a foreign journalist. Excerpts follow:
Q: The West has been watching the changes you have brought about in your country—the freeing of political prisoners, enabling Aung San Suu Kyi's party to run in the upcoming April election, and the cease-fires you've declared with some of the ethnic groups. You have made extraordinary changes in a short time. What motivated you to want to change your country and to start this reform process?
President Sein: With regard to the reform process we are undertaking in our country, there is a lot of encouragement from our people. The reform measures are being undertaken based on the wishes of the people [who want] to see our country have peace and stability as well as economic development. To have internal peace and stability and economic development, it is important to have good relations with the political parties that we have in our country. That is why we have had engagement with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In my meeting with Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, we were able to reach an understanding between the two of us.
People would like to see peace and stability and that is why we have had engagement with the ethnic armed groups. That's why our reform process is based on the wishes and the will of the people.
The people could not have this reform process without your leading it. You decided to release the political prisoners, you met Aung San Suu Kyi. What is next? Will you continue with this pace of reforms?
With regards to our future perspectives, we'd like to see transparency. I hope that we can and will be able to maintain friendly relations with countries of the world.
Can you share with us what is next in the reform process?
I believe that you need to know our aims, and they are to have peace and stability and economic development in our country. For the future, we need to continue to take necessary actions to achieve these goals.
You have normalized relations with the U.S. You have released political prisoners and achieved cease-fires with some of the ethnic groups. Do you have a definite next step?
The parliament also made amendments to the election commission law so that Aung San Suu Kyi can contest the upcoming by election [April 1st]. Now, the National League for Democracy--her party, the NLD--has registered as a political party, and Aung San Suu Kyi will be contesting the upcoming by-election. If the people vote for her, she will be elected and become a member of parliament. I am sure that the parliament will warmly welcome her. This is our plan.
Another thing I would like to shed some light on is the ethnic armed groups we have in our country. First of all, we need to build confidence between the two sides. We have reached agreements on certain things. This requires the two sides to sign an agreement and return to the legal fold without carrying arms.
You made a cease-fire with the Karin group.
There are a total of 11 armed groups in our country. We have engagement with all the armed groups. We also have agreements with some of the ethnic armed groups. But this is not over yet. We are continuing negotiations.
What did you mean when you said they should return to the legal fold? Is that after reaching an agreement with the government?
This is based on the agreement between the two sides. Soon we will try to achieve an eternal peace in the country. However, this will require time.
If she does well in the upcoming election, would you think of giving Aung San Suu Kyi a cabinet post?
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.