Myanmar transition still shaky, says minister Soe Thane

Myanmar transition still shaky, says minister Soe Thane

MYANMAR'S transition is still at a "shaky" stage and many issues remain.

But reform efforts, including the halting of land-grabbing by business interests and ensuring that hundreds of thousands have titles to their land, are slowly winning broad public support, said Minister Soe Thane, one of President Thein Sein's key reformers.

Myanmar has been rocked by sporadic violence since democratic and market reforms began just over two years ago.

While much of the violence has been sectarian, with anti-Muslim attacks stoked by right-wing Buddhists, a string of small bombs set off across the country last month was blamed on regional ethnic Karen business interests worried about losing control of natural resources to foreign investors.

One person died in those blasts and several, including an American tourist, were injured.

"The transition is still shaky," said Mr Soe Thane, a minister in the President's office. "We have to share with the people why democracy is important - why reforms are important for 60 million people, not just a few.

"If we can broaden support for reforms across the civil society base, the transition will be less shaky. People trust civil society."

Mr Soe Thane, 65, a pugnacious but jovial former navy admiral who says he has no political ambitions and just wants to be "an ordinary person", has toured the country extensively, holding townhall-style meetings with local residents and officials where he serves in effect as the President's salesman.

"The message is 'people-centred development'," he told The Straits Times. "Next year, we will visit 330 of the country's most populous townships, to explain to the people the importance of democracy and reforms."

Further, land titles will be given to those who have occupied land for generations but have no titles, he said. The move will prevent land-grabbing by powerful business interests. And by the beginning of 2015, land titles will be issued to landless people.

"If we don't do this, it would only be the President reforming - for the rest of the people, life would stay the same," he said.

On another front, Mr Soe Thane chairs a committee that meets twice a week to review cases of political prisoners. He said the administration fully intends to keep a pledge made by the President in Britain in July, to release all political prisoners by Dec 31.

His comments to The Straits Times came in an interview on Friday, just hours after 69 political prisoners were released, including two grandsons of the late military dictator general Ne Win.

The releases came amid a flurry of high-level visits to Myanmar last week, by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led a 100-strong business delegation, as well as former United States president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

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