The Burmese deputy foreign minister Maung Myint tells Mizzima that human rights and press freedom are essential to democracy and the National Human Rights Commission plans to provide assistance and relief supplies to war refugees in Kachin State. Editor-in-chief Soe Myint interviewed Maung Myint while he attended a democracy forum in Indonesia. The minister discusses a wide range of issues including political prisoners, economic sanctions and press freedom.
Question: The government says Burma is in a transition to democracy and the process started when the army took power by a coup. After the coup, where were the reforms and the transitions? For instance, press freedom or anything else?
Answer: Rather than directly go to this issue, I think we should go first to the history of our country. After regaining independence in 1948 our country followed and exercised a parliamentary democracy system but in-fighting in the political parties, the demand for federal rights and secession rights along with instability and unrest in the country and insurgency compelled the army forces to stage a coup.
After taking power by a coup in 1962, the then leaders of the armed forces regarded parliamentary democracy as not helping the country and they took the road of a one-party system.
Under this one-party rule, a command economy system had problems for a number of reasons, ethnic unrest and instability due to the insurgency, a lack of law enforcement as a consequence, and the inability to build peace and stability triggered the collapse in the economy and then the people could not bear any more hardships; after that, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was toppled by the people.
After taking power by a coup on September 18, 1988, the army had a right to choose any system it wished, but the leaders of our armed forces were determined to follow the path of democracy in accordance with the demands made by both the international community and our people. But as a saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built overnight.” So we could not build our democratic system directly. In Africa, we can see many emerging democracies collapsed in a very short time span. So the leaders of our armed forces decided to focus on three main points or issues in transforming our country into a democratic country. They are peace and stability, economic development and human resources development. They are the foundations.
So a national convention was convened to draft a constitution while building on these three points. The National Convention could adopt the basic principles for the constitution. After doing this task, as everyone knows, this Constitution was ratified by 92.48 per cent of the eligible voters in a constitutional referendum and then the general election was held in 2010 under the Constitution. We are transforming our country into a democratic system. But the standards and norms of democratic systems vary. We are still very young with just eight months in this process so the standards and norms of our democracy cannot be same as mature democratic countries.
But as Susilo Banban said today in the “Democracy Forum,” we accept that human rights is the pillar of democracy, and we have already formed a National Human Rights Commission led by U Mya.
The National Human Rights Commission is an independent institution and it is doing its utmost in building our new country. Everyone knows this. We cannot build our country in the standards and norms of mature democracies in a very short time. But we are building our country step by step. The international community recognizes and pays respect to our great efforts.
I attended this “Democracy Forum” for the third time. In the past, the forums were interested in Burma, whether we were going to democracy or not. But this time, they acknowledge our efforts to transform our country into a democracy because they knew we have already taken many steps in doing this job.
Q: Yes, the government is very young. What concrete steps is it taking now? For instance, how can the people lodge their complaints with the National Human Rights Commission for violations of their rights? Do you have a process for this?
A: As far as I know, it has been officially announced that either individuals or groups can lodge their complaints to this commission for the redress of their grievances. I know that the commission has received such complaints.
But the National Human Rights Commission was established only recently, and it has wide ranging responsibilities. As far as I know, they have already started tackling all these issues.
I’ve also learned that people from this commission will visit Kachin State in northern Burma to give people assistance in this area.
Q: In the transition period, could international or regional countries be of help in providing their expertize and experiences in the area of human rights?
A: As I have said before, we are not total strangers to democracy. Our country fully exercised a parliamentary democratic system in the 1948-52 period, and we had a leading role in this regard in our region.
After the 2010 general election, we established our democratic state and democratic government on March 30, 2011. Since then, we have been studying the experiences of international countries. Our president himself is an experienced leader. He has political advisers also. Our president cordially welcomes and studies all letters sent to him and listens carefully to what all people say who visit him and say to him. He sensibly and carefully analyses this advice and uses it in his work. All his political advisers will certainly study the experiences of international countries and give their advice to him.
Similarly, our foreign ministry must submit reports and observations to our leaders after attending the democracy forum. I believe that they will use all these reports in making a thorough analysis and extract the important points.
Q: When do you think the by-election will be held?
A: Tin Aye leads the Election Commission, and it has not yet announced the date of the by-election. As per the Constitution, the date of the by-election shall be announced three months in advance. So this by-election cannot be made within the next three months. Our House of the People (the Lower House) Speaker Thura Shwe Mann told a press briefing that about two weeks ago.
This by-election will be more transparent and fair in comparison with the general election held in November 2010. That has already officially been announced.
Q: We’re glad to hear the election will be free and fair this time because many independent organizations especially some international organizations have pointed out that there were widespread vote rigging and electoral fraud in the 2010 general election. How will the government ensure a more free and fair election?
A: I’d like to address here some of the misguided accusations made by the international community. I don’t know exactly how we were not free and fair in the 2010 general election. If you tell me in which places these electoral malpractices and frauds were found, our Election Commission can look into these cases. Some of our procedures in the election process are exemplary even within the international community.
For instance, the Thai embassy in Rangoon told us that our vote counting system is better than the international standard. In our country, vote counting was made in the presence of not only the agents of political parties but also in the presence of 10 voters as witnesses. So the vote counting system was very good, and they said they don’t have such a system in their country yet.
But if you can give concrete facts on vote rigging and malpractice in our election by providing exact locations and concrete cases, our Election Commission can look into these cases. It is difficult for us to handle accusations made in a general way.
Q: In international practice, election observers or election monitors from either regional or international countries are invited to observe and monitor the election. For instance, in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Does the Burmese government have plans to allow international monitors to observe the forthcoming by-election?
A: We didn’t invite any international observers to our general election held in 2010, but we invited representatives from foreign embassies in Burma and country representatives from UN agencies as witnesses to our election.
Many of them accepted our invitation and participated in it. We took them to various poll booths in states and regions, and they could observe and monitor our election. So you can say these observers and monitors are international observers. Whether they will be invited again in this forthcoming election or not will be decided by the Election Commission.
Q: Burma will take the chairmanship of Asean in 2014. Some of our reporters say it is difficult to get real news from government sources in Naypyitaw. They say that international-standard facilities and processes for the media are badly needed. Can the government raise its standards in providing the media with timely information, and provide adequate means for the international media to report on the 2014 Asean proceedings?
A: We have enough time for this. We have built all of these infrastructures for the Asean summit in preparation starting two years ago, especially government-owned hotels for head of states and delegates from these countries and conference buildings for the summit. We showed all these buildings and preparations to the Indonesia foreign minister Mati Nata Ligawa two or three months ago when he visited Burma. Work is underway on all these buildings round the clock in three shifts.
We don’t need to worry about completion of the buildings or the infrastructure. We will build and fulfill all other necessary infrastructure and facilities including telecommunications in time in the remaining period.
Q: The Burmese president and others said in Bali, Indonesia, that the political prisoners would be released. Will all of them be released at once or only a few in each batch?
A: After assuming office, the president released prisoners in two batches during an 8-month period, the number in total reached 26,000. Some organizations said that a hundred so-called prisoners of conscience were included in these prisoners.
The position of our government is very clear. There are no political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in our country. A man may have his political belief or conscience but if he violates the existing laws in our country, he will be prosecuted in a trial court and will be given punishment. At that time, we see him as an ordinary prisoner.
By treating them as ordinary prisoners, they can be released when the president gives his pardon or amnesty. I have already said that these prisoners would be released at the appropriate time unless it would undermine the peace and stability of the country.
Q: In Burma, especially after the new government assumed office, we saw some loosening of censorship laws. For instance, the government stopped blocking some websites. I wonder when our country will get media freedom similar to Indonesia?
A: I don’t want to speak on behalf of my government because I’m a deputy foreign minister, and I think this issue is concerned with the Information Ministry. My government and I totally accept media as the fourth pillar of the state and democracy.
But the media itself has ethics, media ethics. Media should not have a bias, and they should work for the benefit of the people by pointing out weaknesses and mistakes of the state, and that must be their role. I’d like to say mainly they must show maturity. I understand that freedom of the press can flourish only when both media and democracy become mature. According to my understanding, if media has a bias and it focuses only on “hot” news in their reporting, our aspiration of a free press will still be far away.
Q: Previously it has been almost impossible to get interviews with government ministers and senior officials. We thank you for giving this interview to us. What is the government’s stand on exile-based media? Will they let exiled media return to Burma and work freely?
A: In establishing a democracy, the more Burmese nationals who participate the better. As for me, if these exile-based media work for the benefit of the country, we have no reason not to accept them. According to my understanding, as I said before, if the media contributes constructively in building our country and works for the benefit of our country, it will become a force and strength for our country.
Q: We hear that the government is drafting a media law now or is preparing to draft the law. Does it intend to draft a law with broad, Western-type media freedoms or will there by restrictions imposed by the state, such as prior censorship?
A: This question too is out of my reach. It concerns our Information Ministry, and it must draft this law and it must be passed by Parliament. This media bill must be submitted to both governmental bodies. After being passed by both Parliaments, the bill must be submitted again to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (a joint sitting of both houses) for a third reading. Only after being passed in the joint-session, can the bill be sent to the president for his signature. As far as I know by listening to the news, I don’t hear anything about such a bill being submitted to Parliament.
Q: The president said in an address to Parliament that people in exile could come back home and he welcomed them, but many people remain skeptical about the state of real freedom in Burma now. They also say Burmese embassies have only very general instructions regarding this process.
A: The president invited all Burmese nationals in exile to come back home. This invitation is for them to come back home and contribute their work in building our democratic state for the benefit of the country.
This invitation also covers the exile media. I’d like to point out that some very significant people such as the “Thee Lay Thee” dance troupe have come back home. And Harn Yawngshwe from Canada and Peter Linpin from the U.S. came back home too. I think the total number of these people who have come back home has reached in the hundreds.
If they are holding Burmese passports, it is very easy for them. They can contact the nearest Burmese embassy and these embassies will present their cases to our foreign ministry. We shall do the necessary scrutiny and screening with the Home Ministry. And then we will receive them. There are hardly any denials in these cases.
Q: Burma is under Western economic sanctions, which the government says is not fair? Why are the sanctions unfair? The West says they are imposed because of violations of human rights and other international standards.
A: Imposing sanctions on our country was done based on democracy and human rights issues. Now we are moving to a democratic state and also we have a National Human Rights Commission for human rights issues. This commission is now functioning independently. We are now tackling all the issues that are the basis for imposing sanctions so these sanctions are no longer needed.
The sanctions do not have an impact only on the government but also on innocent common people like farmers, workers and others. The impact on the common people is more severe. So we say the sanctions should be lifted now. It’s time to lift them.
Q: By attending the democracy forum in Bali what have you learned?
A: Most of the countries that came here are interpreting democracy in their own way. We realized that all of these countries love democracy and are walking along the democracy path. They are implementing the democratic systems in their own ways, and their experiences are valuable for us. We can learn from their experiences, and we can take their models. These democratic countries can exchange their opinions and experiences. If countries can cooperate, I believe that in many ways it will contribute to our democratic process.
The interview was originally done in Burmese and translated to English.