Myanmar President hopeful of ceasefire deal

Myanmar President hopeful of ceasefire deal
ST Indochina Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh (left) and Myanmar President Thein Sein (right) at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw last Friday.

Myanmar's powerful army will step back from its prominent role in the government once peace agreements are reached with insurgent groups, President Thein Sein told The Sunday Times in an hour-long exclusive interview.

Despite slow progress due to the complexities of negotiating with as many as 16 armed groups, he still hopes for a nationwide ceasefire pact on Feb 12, he said.

The 69-year-old mild-mannered former top general also noted that democracy in Myanmar is "nascent" and thus, at this stage, must be disciplined and not chaotic.

Myanmar's dramatic transition from a military regime to a quasi- civilian government began less than four years ago, with Mr Thein Sein in his March 2011 inaugural speech acknowledging "dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism" in the country's decades of conflict - and pledging to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens.

The military had ruled with an iron fist for decades, defying international condemnation and isolation. But in 2003, it announced a seven-step road map to a "discipline-flourishing democracy". The plan was adopted in 2004.

At present, 25 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the army. Three key ministers in charge of aspects of national security are still hand-picked by the army chief.

Asked what stage the country is at now, Mr Thein Sein said: "We started to practise the democratic system of government just a little over three years ago. We are in a nascent stage, our people are still in a learning process.

"I believe, rather than having a chaotic democracy, it is appropriate for the time being to have a disciplined democracy because we are in a nascent stage of transition.

"But I believe, as the people get used to and mature with democratic experience and practice, and the majority become more educated, I don't think we even need to use the word 'disciplined'. I believe it will be a gradual process."

The President stressed the importance of reaching ceasefire agreements with armed groups with which the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, has been at war for years - in some cases since the country's independence in 1948 - as ethnic minorities sought to secede or assert their rights against the majority ethnic Burmans.

"If we continue to face a domestic insurgency problem, the Tatmadaw will continue to play a crucial role in the country," Mr Thein Sein said. "Therefore, we are trying our utmost to have the ceasefire, and peace and stability.

"If we can effectively put an end to the insurgency problem, and as people mature with democratic norms and practices, the role of the Tatmadaw will be gradually reduced."

The interview in the sprawling presidential palace in Naypyitaw took place as the country edges towards a watershed election at the end of the year.

In a contest that will be closely watched as a litmus test of Myanmar's democratic claims, the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party will have to contend with the opposition National League for Democracy led by the iconic Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, released from years of house arrest as part of the transition.

The President said he was optimistic.

"We are fully aware the international community is quite closely following the elections," he said. "We are trying our utmost to have the 2015 multi-party elections free and fair.

"Our transition from a military government to a constitutionally elected government was peaceful and free from bloodshed, unlike in other countries. With this experience, I don't think there will be great difficulty and danger; it will be a smooth transition."

Returning repeatedly to the theme of the peace talks that government negotiators have been holding with armed groups, Mr Thein Sein said: "Looking back at the three years of our efforts, we are quite encouraged.

"We have been able to cease fighting in almost all corners of our country, except for some pockets in Kachin state. This is because of technical difficulties and misunderstandings at the ground level, so we have unexpectedly seen skirmishes.

"In the past, we hadn't even seen each other, we had just been fighting each other. Today, we can shake hands and sit at the table and negotiate, and we have been able to agree on many points."

The armed groups are split on the idea of signing the agreement on Feb 12 - celebrated in Myanmar as Union Day. Senior government insiders say that if some groups do not sign, the government will go ahead and sign the agreement with those who are willing, and the door would be open to the others to sign it later.

But the President said: "I don't want any group to be left behind."

Mr Thein Sein also vigorously rejected talk of backsliding on reforms.

"When we took office, telephone density was less than 3 per cent. Currently, we have about 30 per cent telephone density; even in remote areas, people have access to mobile telephone services," he said.

"Tourism is booming. When we took office, arrivals were less than one million a year. In 2014, we had three million; we are trying for five million by the end of 2015.

"Each month, every month, the statistics show we are making progress.

"So it is not stagnant; the reforms have been progressing. In fact, we are gaining momentum."

This article was first published on January 18, 2015.
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