Myanmar: Long Road to Reforms

President Thein Sein of Myanmar spoke to DW television news anchor Amrita Cheema on 4th September 2014 during his visit to Berlin.

Amrita Cheema (AC): A warm welcome, President Thein Sein to Berlin and to Germany. You have been President of Myanmar for three years. Are you satisfied with the progress your country has made in these years?

President Thein Sein (TS): First of all, let me say that it is a pleasure to be interviewed by Deutsche Welle. As you said, three years have passed and I am quite satisfied with how the reform process has taken place in Myanmar since then. The transition has been smooth and without bloodshed. That has not been the case in other coun-
tries which have undergone similar transitions. The reforms in Myanmar came about at the same time as the Arab Spring. However, unlike what happened in many countries in the Middle East, the transition and introduction of reforms was quite smooth. I am very encouraged and pleased that the bloodshed and casualties we saw in the Middle East were avoided.

AC: You became President after the first elections in 20 years were held in Myanmar. It was ruled by military junta until then. What made you actually embark on this process of reform? You are described as the "architect" of reforms in Myanmar.

TS: Yes, Myanmar was indeed ruled by a military government. As you know, there are many ethnic groups in the country, and there has been a history of armed conflict among them. In order to ensure peace and stability and to safeguard national security, the military government maintained power for nearly twenty years. But the mili-
tary rulers at the time were fully aware that the people of Myanmar longed for a democratic system of government. So, as well as ensuring national security, the former military government also laid down the foundations necessary for democracy to flourish in the country. It approached the transition to democracy in a systematic man-
ner. As you are aware, in 2003, the military government laid down a seven-step roadmap to democracy, which it then implemented. There is a genuine longing for democracy among Myanmar's people and the military government has attempted to realize that desire.

So to return to your question, as we go about building a democratic state, our focus is on listening to and identifying what it is the majority of people want. We try to instigate change and reform based on what the people of Myanmar desire.

AC: Many people in Myanmar still feel that the military is running the government. 25 per cent of the seats in parliament are reserved for military officers. Three key ministries in Myanmar: defense, interior and border security, are held by serving army generals. When will this change? If the military controls parliament, you cannot have full democratic change.

TS: We are fully aware that the people of Myanmar would like to see the role of the military to be gradually reduced. But it is also important to consider the particularity of the present situation. In Myanmar, we have sixteen armed groups operating there at present. Assigning major positions to the military reflects the need to maintain national security. As you correctly noted, military representatives make up 25 per cent of the parliament. The mentioned three key ministries were given to experienced military personnel in order to ensure security. I must also point out that Myanmar's development as a democracy will be accompanied by a reduction in military rule.

AC: Myanmar is going to hold elections next year. Are you going to stand for President again?

TS: Yes, we will be holding elections in 2015. But to be honest, I am seventy years of age and have served my country in various capacities. I would like to retire. But while I intend not to stand again, at present it is my responsibility to safeguard peace and stability and to serve the people of Myanmar. So that, rather than considering whether I should run in the next election, is my priority at present. But I will be supporting anyone who will help lead Myanmar into a peaceful and prosperous future.

AC: One person who would like your job is opposition- and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Will she be allowed to stand for president?

TS: Right now, there are certain conditions restricting her from running for the highest office. As you know, her husband was a British national - a foreigner - and her sons are also British citizens. She herself however is a citizen of Myanmar. So at present she is prohibited from running for the top political role. There are also plans to amend the current constitution. But that depends on the people and their representatives.

Myanmar's constitution

AC: This constitution was created by the military government. A recent committee opposed changing Article 59 which bars a person with foreign relatives from standing in elections. Critics say this provision was only designed to stop Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting. What are your personal views? Would you like Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for President?

TS: First, let me say something about Myanmar's constitution. While it was indeed crafted during the rule of the military government in the context of transferring to a democratic system, the process included people from all walks of life. It was not purely drafted by the military. Some provisions contained in the constitution can be amended with the approval of a parliamentary majority of two-thirds. In other cases however, the constitution dictates that a referendum must be conducted.
I genuinely do not want to see Aung San Suu Kyi, or any other citizen to be barred from contesting the top leadership role in Myanmar. But at the same time, we must consider the will of the people. We must also give serious consideration to the fundamental principle of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and the measures needed to safeguard them.

AC: The international community has recognized the progress made by Myanmar. But leaders – including German chancellor Angela Merkel – say that aid and support for Myanmar is conditional on the reform process continuing and improvements in human rights. Can you assure them of this?

TS: Myanmar's reforms are not only instigated by the government. They are also contingent upon the people's wishes - and as I said earlier, they desire a democratic system. As members of the government, it is our duty to answer those needs and to oversee a move in that direction and to ensure that democracy can flourish in our country. But it must also be said that such a successful democratic system relies not only on the understanding and support of the  international community but also on the media like Deutsche Welle.

AC: Mr President, a final question for you - what do you see as the biggest challenge for your country?

TS: The biggest challenge is that people are still getting used to how democracy works. Now that they have a democratic system of government, they are enjoying the freedom which that entails. At the same time, they often neglect to remember that such freedom must necessarily be accompanied by accountability and re-
sponsibility. Like any other place undergoing a democratic transition, we are experiencing other challenges and obstacles too. But we are confident that we will be able to overcome them by working together.

AC: President Thein Sein, it was a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.




Amrita Cheema

Amrita Cheema is a news anchor and journalist at DW television. She also moderates World Economic Forum debates.
She is a Rhodes Scholar with a D.Phil in history from Oxford University.

To see the full interview go to: