Burmese President Thein Sein, in early April, met with the Karen National Union in Naypyitaw, where he delivered a wide ranging, informal talk, mentioning his Karen roots. He also discussed ethnic armed groups, economic development, agriculture, developing an industrial base, foreign policy and national reconciliation.
The following is an edited translation of his remarks by Mizzima:
“I hail from Pathein. My distinct relatives are ethnic Karen people. My wife lived in Wet Chaung Karen village in Kyaung Gone Township. This village is co-habited by Kayah and Karen ethnic people. And also it was inhabited by ethnic Burmese too.
“Wet Chaung and Aung Sein villages are in west of Kyaung Gone. I shifted to school in Pathein when I was in 8th and 9th grade. Before joining high school in Pathein, I couldn’t get proper education in my native village as there were no proper schools. We had only a primary school in our native village. Upon completion of primary education, we had to move to Pathein to continue our education. I studied there for about one year. Next year, I and my elder brother could not pursue our education because of financial constraints of our parents.
“Our parents supported our education by working as street vendors. My elder brother is senior to me in education. I was only 6th grade when he was 8th Grade. So my parents could not send two of us to school at the same time. My elder brother continued his education at that time and I had to return to my village.
“I wanted to learn the English language in my village but there was no one who could teach English to me in our village. And then I heard that there was a middle school in Rakhine Chaung village on Hainggyi Island. I stayed at the house of our relative, and I studied at this school for two years at 6th and 7th grade. After completing 7th grade, I didn’t have school there to continue my education. And then I had to come back to Pathein. I attended 8th, 9th and matriculation classes at Pathein High School. After passing matriculation, I sat Defence Services Academy (DSA) entrance exam and joined this academy after passing it.
“My elder brother’s wife is ethnic Karen. My nephews do not resemble with my brother. My cadet number in DSA was 399. After passing from DSA, I joined army and was happy with my career choice. Then I became the battalion commander. My driver was same with me in age. He worked for me for long time as my driver. But I don’t remember his name. I had called him Pha Htee (uncle) since I met him. I mean all of us are relatives, brothers and sisters. I am closer to you than others as I was born and brought up in Irrawaddy delta region.
“There are many ethnic Karen people in delta region. I see them as my own brothers and sisters. There are two views. I sum up and review these two views. I went to DSA and became the soldier. As a soldier, I was posted to a battalion stationed in Irrawaddy delta. At that time, Irrawaddy delta was unstable and had armed insurrection.
“There were many armed groups there at that time, communist groups and ethnic Karen armed group, Byaung Sein etc. We had to fight with these armed groups. The fighting had been in Shan State for a long time. There was fierce fighting when I was in 2 IC (2nd-in-command) post. We had a fierce battle 40-day battle in 1971 (with BCP insurgents). I was posted to Chin Hill when I was promoted to battalion commander. Chin Hill was peaceful at that time. We had to do security duty. Then I was transferred from Kalay Myo to the War Office. After that I was promoted to brigade commander.
“Now I’d like to explain my two views. As a soldier, we had to fight each other, and we saw them as our enemy. We fought each other in this life and death struggle. So we could not bear when our own ethnic group was attacked. In our soldiers’ point of view, we always saw them as our enemy.
“But when I took charge this duty as head of state, my view has been changed. Now I see them as our brethren. All of these ethnic groups; Palaung, Karen, Chin and Kachin are living in the same territory of Union of Myanmar. Palaung is an ethnic group, Karen is an ethnic group, Chin is an ethnic group, Kachin is an ethnic group. All of them are living under the same roof, same community in the territory of Burma.
“Burmese is also an ethnic group of this country. I realized fighting each other and killing each other was wrong when I became older. My view has been changed. This change of mind became deeper and more profound when I took charge the highest office of the country.
“All these ethnic groups of Burmese, Karen, Chin and Kachin are living together in the same country. In general, we are the same family living in the same house. We are born to the same parents. But even among the siblings, the personality and appearance will be different. Some are short, some are tall, some have fair complexion and some will have dark complexion. Some of them will be patient and tolerant and some of them will be short-tempered and aggressive. Even though they are born to the same parents, the personality of them is different from each other. So in the country, we are different from each other in languages, race, creed, culture and custom etc.
“So in brief, we start from our side to take care of the unity of these ethnic people and solidarity among the brethren. We tried to build our country by adopting the 7-step roadmap for democratization process. And then we could install the elected civilian government. Now we have a Parliament directly elected by popular vote. Now we have our judicial branch. In a democratic country, I feel that justice and equity among the people is the essence of democracy.
“Now we have disunity among the ethnic people. All the problems are primarily based on this issue. We did these works to give equity and equal rights to all of our ethnic people. On the other hand, this land is owned by all of us. All of us belong to this country. So Karen people also own this country and are concerned with this country. So are the ethnic Chin people. So are the ethnic Mon people. So are the ethnic Burmese people. Based on our benevolence, based on our will, based on our aspirations and by collecting our opinions and attitudes, our government offered these ethnic people peace when we took power.
“I’d like to tell one of the vivid views of us. Killing a Karen soldier is the loss of a countryman in our country. Death of a Burmese soldier in action means the loss of a citizen of our country. So do Kachin, Mon and Chin soldiers. So the losses of these people are the losses of the country. We should regret these losses. It has been so long now. It has been over 60 years since regaining independence in 1948.
“Our country has been left behind other countries because of chaos and unrest due to a lack of stability, peace and unity among our people. When you compare our country with Thailand in the Asean group now, you will see we lag behind. In the past, Thailand was not as much developed as we were. When we regained independence from Britain, our Mingaladon airport was the international airport and hub of air travel to neighbouring countries. The travelers who wanted to go to Cambodia and France would take flights from our airport. Similarly other neighbouring countries came here to take their flights. When Singapore seceded from Malaysia, they had nothing. They didn’t know how to build their city. At that time, they came here to study the works of rhw Rangoon City Development Committee.
“They learned city planning works from us. In the past our country was prosperous and developed. We were well prepared to build our country. As I said you before, because of the lack of unity among our people, we could not work for the development of our country and we are left behind these countries. Among the 10 Asean countries, we were left behind even by the poorest, Laos. We consider this point too. And then we decided to build peace and work for the development our country step by step.
“Our country has changed much when you respond to our peace building process. I’m very glad and elated to see you here. But in some areas, we might have differences in opinions and attitudes. All of these issues can be resolved through negotiation and deliberations. Most of these issues can be resolved if we put priority on each one. Differences might exist moew or less at the moment.
“Please work together for the development of the entire country. We are living under the same roof, the territory of Union of Myanmar. If we have such positive attitude and if we can negotiate successfully, we can certainly overcome all of these difficult issues. I’m speaking sincerely. Our government is implementing the will of the people. Our population is nearly 60 million now. If we ask about the will and desire of each and every citizen in the country, we will get 60 million different views. But all people support restoring peace and tranquility in the country. They want to see the rule of law. This is their common view. They have been struggling with instability and daily hardships since regaining independence in 1948. So they want peace and tranquility. This is our common view and common ground.
“They want peace and security. They want sound sleep under the rule of law. They want to go to work safely. This is our common ground. And another point is our patriotic desire to build our country and be prosperous. Our government is implementing these two main points now. We will work for restoring peace in our country. We might have differences, but we must put them aside and must work for the common ground. All these differences can be resolved through negotiations while we are working together in implementing the common grounds.
“There are two main parts in peace and tranquility. The first one is political stability. Now the domestic political situation unstable. People assembled here and there and they shout slogans. The government cannot fulfill their demands. Everyone has patriotism. Doreign countries linked with our domestic politics. Then they imposed economic sanctions on us. They exerted political pressure on us. At last, we could not use our money freely. I believe these countries will loose their screw turn by turn depending on the relaxation and liberalization in our domestic politics. So we work hard for political stability in the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi plays a pivotal role in this regard.
Other organizations are rallying around her. So we first met with her. We told her our attitudes and opinions as I mentioned before. Two main desires of the people are peace and tranquility. The will of the people is ours too. Her desire and will were the same as ours. We proposed to work together to fulfill the people’s wills and desires by putting aside our differences for the moment and work for the country together. Then we achieved common grounds in meeting with her. After that she agreed to work in the legal framework in peaceful and tranquil manner. Then all other organizations rallied around her.
“In the past, as you know, they always opposed and attacked us. If they continue staging protest and shouting slogans in the country, we cannot work for anything. So we prioritized domestic politics and worked for it for some time. We let them participate in the political process. On the other hand, it can be seen as political competition between them and us. But we are implementing the people’s desires of peace and tranquility and they won (in the last by-elections). We are happy for their victory.
“Based on this fact, rhw EU liftws all of their sanctions imposed on us. On the 4th of this month, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her position public. For a first step, the UA would appoint an ambassador to Burma. Anyway this is benefit for our country. We implement these political works for the sake of the benefit of the country. And the second point is domestic peace. As I said you before the people want to live in peace and tranquility. The people live in Rangoon cannot comprehend the value of the peace.
“We were born and brought up in rural areas. We were brought up amid the insurgency. So we understand well the value of peace. We fled our home in Einme town which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Karen people to Wetchaung village and then to Kyaung Gone town. We could not pursue our education. We suffered when we were in our childhood. The war is still raging now. The people have to live with worries and anxieties. So the desire of most of the people is peace. They want to live safely under the rule of law until the end of our world. We are implementing these two things. The reason for building peace is for implementing these two things. You must render your helping hands in this work. After achieving sound foundation for these two works, we must work for the development.
“We cannot work alone for these tasks. We must work together with all ethnic people. In the development of our country, our government has two objectives. The first is for agriculture sector. The people eat rice every day. We always need rice for consumption. And at the same time, our population is growing year by year. The current world population is about 7 billion. Our country’s population is nearly 60 millions. We cannot yet give exact amount as we have not yet done a census. So we will do this census work. We have population of nearly 60 millions now. We will have 100 millions 30 years later.
“We will not be alive until that time but this will be the age of our grandchildren. At the age of our grandchildren and great grandchildren, our country’s population will be about 100 million. And then the population will be about 150 million at the time of their grandchildren. We have sufficient supply of rice for today’s 60 million people. We must work for 100 million people too. We must prepare for 150 million. World population is growing to 7 billion from 6 billion. Every country is now prioritizing for food security.
“As for our country, our economy is an agriculture based economy and we must have a sound base for development in this sector. Our current food production is sufficient for our current population. But we might not have sufficient supply when we have a population of 100 million. We might not have sufficient supply when we have population of 150 million. So we are working for the development of this sector by five means. First, we organize farmers to change their attitude, not only working for self sufficiency, but also work for our children and grandchildren. We tried to change their mind and attitude. And then we must change the structure of our paddy fields.
“We cannot continue our current structure of these fields in the future. If we continue current structure, we cannot get precise statistics because our fields are in different shapes. When we travel to Bangkok by flight, we can see the paddy fields from an arial view. All of them are systematically constructed with irrigation canals and production linea. But in our country, our fields are in different shapes. Some of them are circular, some of them are rectangular and triangular. And then they claim yield per acre as 60 baskets, 100 baskets etc. It’s unbelievable and impossible. So we must change the structure of our paddy fields. We must enhance our soil. Please don’t overestimate me as a president. I’m also the farmer. We have 10 acres of farmland. I worked as a farmer when I was young. And then our seeds are traditional seeds used by many generations. 50-60 baskets per acre yield are not enough for sufficiency. Even a 100 basket yield is not sufficient for us. Other countries have 150-200 baskets per acre yield. They use hybrid seeds. We must use them also. Some of these hybrid seeds are not good for consumption and some of them are good and tasty. We want to export rice to earn foreign currency besides domestic consumption.
Vietnam is only half of our country in size. But it can export 8 million tons of rice yearly. Our country is twice their country in size but we can’t export even 1 million tons each year. Thailand is also small having the size of our Shan State but it can export 7 to 9 million tons every year. So we must change our technique in rice production. And then we must also change our seeds. After that we must change to mechanized agriculture. At last we must go to a mechanized system. We must work for food security with mechanized farming which will complement our economy in one way or another. Agriculture alone cannot make our country develop and prosperous. If you see all developed and prosperous countries, all of them are industrialized countries. Thailand followed this way. South Korea has no natural resources. Likewise, Japan. They became developed countries through industrialization. So our second objective is industrialization.
“We have considerable natural resources for this second objective. We have forests. We have metals and mineral resources. We have water resources for hydropower. We have oil and gas resources in both onshore and offshore. Some reserves are untapped yet. We will plant rubber and palm oil. We have such foundations. We have energy resources which are not yet systematically utilized. We have capable intellectuals who can work for our country such as Dr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing who is very high caliber. Our human resources are very rich but we need capital and technology. We have competent human resource but we are lagged in technology. We need technology.
“We shall invite foreign investment only after achieving stability in the country. The foreign investors will not come if the economic sanctions are still being imposed. They will come only when these sanctions are partially lifted. Now they are coming group by groups. Even from Asean countries, Indonesia and Vietnam sent their delegations for discussion with us to investment in Burma. We are working for the Dawei industrial zone.
“Our country will be rich only after industrialization. We have a considerable amount of human resources. We have an abundant labour force but now this abundant labour force has to work in other countries because of a lack of job opportunities at home. They are in Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore etc…
First we must build labour intensive industry. It does not need much capital and high technology. This industry does not need high tech but can provide much job opportunity. They don’t need high education background. These new workers can work in these labour intensive industries after getting just 1-2 months training. These industries can give about 1,000 jobs in each factory. So if we have 10 factories, we can provide our people 10,000 jobs. If these workers get such employment, they can earn money, they will have food and shelter, they can have savings and can have a decent living. They can give their children education. They can provide quality health care to their family members. Our people will have longer life expectancy. There will be the more income the higher standard of education and health.
“We have a lot of such opportunities in our country. Third, IT sector is lagging far behind other countries. Now people are wanting a 5,000-kyat SIM card. We cannot blame them. I asked the mobile phone SIM card price when I visited Laos. They replied it’s just US$ 5. In previous official exchange rate at 6 kyat, it will cost 30 kyat and in current exchange rate of 800 kyat against US$, it will cost nearly 5,000 kyat. Can’t we do that?
“We need basic machinery and equipments to manufacture these products. We built Cyber City near Pyinoolwin, Mandalay Region, for that purpose but we don’t have enough capital and technology. We have not yet got big investment from leading foreign companies in the IT sector. The IT sector is not yet developed in our country. We shall build a Technology University there later.
“Let us work together for the development of our country. These two things will be our primary tasks. We must work for better agriculture sector because we must prepare for our next generations, our grandchildren. The next is industrialization. We cannot survive only with an agriculture sector. We must work for mechanized farming.
“And for ethnic issues, we must understand each other and we must treat each other cordially and friendly. There are many ethnic people from our country at refugee camps in other countries. Please come back home. I heard once that these refugees are living in these camps poorly. I feel sorry for them. They survive with donations given by other people. In fact, if we see this issue from the point of ethnic issue view, it is very tragic. If they come back home, we must give them shelter first. And then we must consider for providing them food. We must consider for both long and short term. In my opinion, we must seek donor countries for these works. We alone cannot afford this work. Let me say frankly and sincerely our budget is almost exhausted so we must find donor countries.
“Now we have got 5-6 donor countries for these works. They are ready to provide assistances for these refugees. We have already formed an Advisory Council for management of these refugee assistance works. This council is for social and economics matters. We will deal with these donor countries. We will receive money from these donor countries. And we will manage this money systematically.
“We must work together. Sometimes I cannot sleep well when I consider for these things. Now we have had peace talks with you. We got this achievement because of your trust with us. We have our advisory council for these works. After consideration of these things, you come and consult with our group and then we shall work together.
“And the next matter is landmine issue. These landmines were planted by both sides by you and us. At that time we cannot put blame on each other. There’s no time for blame game. Now it’s been over 60 years. The blame game will not end. Let us clean the slate on this matter…
“How we shall create job opportunities? How we shall do for agricultural works? How we shall build factories? And the next matter is amending the Constitution. You can amend provisions in the Constitution which are not in compatible with the desire of the majority. We have a Parliament which can do this job. This Constitution was drawn up in accordance with our nature, custom, culture and character of our people so that we cannot amend all the provisions therein. But you have opportunity to amend this Constitution…
“ And then you will be in parliament as the elected representatives of the people. In the parliament, you will get equal opportunity. This is the equal right for you. You can raise questions in parliament and you can move motions in parliament. You can raise question why these works and those works cannot be done. You can amend the provisions that you don’t like and that are not in accordance with your vision.
“This is the duty of the elder persons of your organization. In our young age, we fought as the soldiers. Now we do politics as the duty of our country. I wish your elder person do these works like us. And then middle aged and young persons in your organization have progressive visions. There are many intellectuals and educated persons in your organization. How will we do for economic development? How will we do for the survival of our organization? How will we feed our people? How will we provide shelter to our people? Economics will be the major issue. I wish your people consider for these questions. And then we must consider for armed force. We must consider how we shall transform this armed force in both essence and form in line with our Constitution. How we shall transform this army. We cannot transform this army into what we want then and there. I understand this. But our arms should not be used in fighting each other. These arms must be for the defence of our country.
“When we consider for the defence of our country, there is China in northeast with population of 1.3 billion, India in west with one billion population, and Bangladesh with population of 460 millions in the size of the country of only one fourth of ours.
“These people in overpopulated Bangladesh have a lot of difficulties in finding food and shelter. They cannot migrate to India so that they are always eyeing us. In international relation, there are no permanent foes and permanent friend. We must see Thailand in this view too. For the self-defence of the country, we must have a regular army.
“This armed institution is for the defence of the country. This armed institution must be competent and high tech. Capable only for the pulling of the trigger is not enough for a modern army. We must modernize our army. In defending against armed invasion by a foreign armed force, a rifle is not enough. Pulling the trigger of these rifles is not enough.
“We shall have computers for target acquisition and fire control. We must have computers for command and control systems. We must discuss later how to build our army as a modernized army, how to make capacity building in our army, how to upgrade and uplift our armed institution, how to transform our army, how to organize and constitute our army, etc. We must have a esprit de corps spirit or high morale to live together forever in this union. We must share all happiness and sorrows. We must have such a spirit among us.”