Myanmar sees better year ahead

National 3 minutes, 42 seconds


THE year 2014 has been a landmark one for Myanmar, as the country re-emerged on to the international scene after decades of Western sanctions. The beginning of democratic reforms three years ago ushered in rapid change to the former pariah state, begetting one of the fastest growing economies in the region, as well as important social and political shifts. In 2014, Myanmar also took on the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN – a political entity of 10 Southeast Asian countries – a significant move symbolising its official coming out.

However the country has also been beset with sporadic communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists, which critics say is the result of systematic persecution of the stateless Muslim minority, known as Rohingyas. The government’s handling of the issue has called into question its commitment to human rights and threatens to derail political reforms.

The Brunei Times spoke with Minister of Information and presidential spokesperson, U Ye Htut, in Yangon recently about some these issues.

Q: How would you assess Myanmar’s chairmanship this year in advancing ASEAN’s goals?

A: Myanmar has been waiting 17 years to lead ASEAN. So Myanmar leading ASEAN means that Myanmar’s integration into the international community has been completed with this chairmanship. In Myanmar the people see this as a very important symbol to re-engage with the international community.

Q: You say that Myanmar wants to play a bigger role, especially on the international stage. But some people are saying Myanmar is unable to handle its domestic issues, particularly on the matter of the Rohingyas, or the Bengalis as you call them. How would you respond to this criticism?

A: The United States has domestic problems like community violence, immigration, Obama’s healthcare bill, the financial crisis, government shutdown, etc. Why don’t people say because of these domestic problems the United States should not play an important role in the international arena?

Q: But how is Myanmar handling the Rohingya issue in your opinion?

A: You have to understand the difference between citizenship and ethnic minority status. We would like to grant citizenship to the third generation of these people (ethnic minorities), but they (Rohingyas) are settlers under the British regime. You cannot give them the same ethnic status as other indigenous minorities. If we give Bengalis this ethnic status then we have to give the same status to Chinese, Nepalese, Tamil and Indian who settled under the British colonial rule in our country. The international community should understand this difference between citizenship and ethnic status.

Q: But people are saying Myanmar doesn’t have a handle on the communal tensions, that this could flare up and prevent Myanmar from moving forward into 2015 and further reform.

A: During this year there was no communal violence again in that area. We have finalised an action plan with an international partner and both communities understand they must live together peacefully. Even the Bengalis understand the rights of the citizenship and the unrealistic demands of according them ethnic status. The problem is still there but we have stabilised the situation.

Q: There have been calls from opposition parties to amend the constitution so that Aung San Suu Kyi can run as a candidate in the next presidential election. She is currently barred from doing so because she was married to a foreign national. What do you think of people trying to push through this amendment?

A: People have to understand, this constitutional amendment has to go through the legal process and not by using the pressure or arms to change it. Some people are not happy with the process and procedure, but everybody agrees that this should go through dialogue and the legal process. It’s not a one-stop process, it’s a long process.

Q:You mentioned earlier that ASEAN should work with China to promote bilateral relationships, especially in the South China Sea. Could you expand on this?

A: Economic cooperation in East Asia and the South China Sea region is very important, I think 90 per cent of trade goes through here. The Chinese are trying to build a 21st century maritime silk road and we have to work together to bring about further economic development. So preserving stability in the South China Sea is of interest to both people. If you are interested in dialogue you will not spark tension in that area. We should focus on promoting bilateral trade between ASEAN and China.

The Brunei Times