‘I Believe That Everyone Agrees Dialogue is Necessary’

By The Irrawaddy 13 January 2015

Ye Htut was appointed Minister of Information last July, two years after the nominally-civilian government moved to end the junta-era pre-publication censorship regime and began to oversee the introduction of private daily newspaper licenses. He has also served as spokesman for President Thein Sein since 2013, emerging as a staunch and articulate defender of the government’s reform credentials and a frequent critic of journalists and opposition politicians on social media.

The Irrawaddy spoke to Ye Htut in Naypyidaw late last month about the country’s reform process and its shortcomings, criminal charges against journalists, plans for the restructuring of state-owned media and Thein Sein’s political future.

Question: Reforms were initiated by the government in 2011, and until the end of 2013 many in Burma and the wider international community believed that the reform process was making progress. In the time since, many have begun to claim that reforms have stalled and have even reversed. What is your view on this?

Answer: The big part of the initial reform process—for example, things like releasing prisoners, abolishing censorship and allowing the return of Burmese exiles—are things that could be done by the government alone. Then, further reforms like peace building and charter reform called for negotiations with stakeholders. The pace, of course, slows down when compromises need to be negotiated. People didn’t believe it when reforms were first initiated. Then, they began to believe and had high expectations of them. When the reality doesn’t meet their expectations, they feel frustrated and become doubtful. Since we are making the reforms before people’s eyes, the doubts fall upon us.

Q: Despite the media reforms, Burma is still one of the top ten countries for the number of journalists arrested and charged by authorities.

A: It is the consequence of the abolition of media censorship. It is also because journalists have no legal knowledge as well as because of ethical issues. For example, in the case of Unity Journal, a journalist with basic legal knowledge could have reported without crossing the line. In spite of the penalties given to journalists, I think there has been considerable progress in media reform. It is great that now we have to take the media’s comments into consideration when adopting any policy. It [the arrest of journalists] is just a side effect, I think, but it will disappear when both sides become mature. As for the media, the only thing it needs to do is to get more training on ethical and legal issues, doesn’t it?

Q: Can’t journalists be punished with something other than imprisonment?

A: The responses to what someone says at a teashop and what is published in a journal won’t be the same. The impact of what is said in a publication will be much greater because it reaches more people. Crimes related to state secrets and religious and racial issues carry a penalty of imprisonment.

Q: How is the proposed transformation of state-owned media into public service media faring?

A: We started to consider the idea of a public service media in 2009. Now, we are still waiting for parliamentary approval of the public service media law. In the past two years, we have been transforming the state-owned media into public service media bit by bit. [It is especially important] that we are fair and balanced during the election. We are giving training to reporters and editors from state-owned media on election reporting.

Q: Most journalists do not accept the transition into public service media. They do not believe that state-owned media can be transformed into public service media. You don’t share this opinion?

A: We will have to prove it with our actions. Public service media is necessary and print media also needs public service media. For example, state-owned newspapers publish long bills. Private dailies can’t do that for free. We do it at a loss because we think people should be adequately informed about legislation. Public service media is needed to do things like this. But then, if the public service media is not up to the mark, you can complain to the parliament which approves the public service media law. You should at least allow a trial run of public service media, as it is being practised in other countries. Shouldn’t it be so?

Q: There have been calls for political dialogue since 1988. From the meeting between former Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi to the 14-party talks last year, nothing has happened. The Burmese people are doubtful that stakeholders have trust in political dialogue, or plan to hold it just for show.

A: I believe that everyone agrees dialogue is necessary. The problem is the mutual distrust of past events has led to the hindrance of dialogue. That’s why the president wants to break the ice first. We’ll meet [with stakeholders] for the first time, and then a second time, and then frequently to become friendly toward each other. Then, we’ll be able to adopt a framework and we will be able to move on within that framework.

Q: Can they go beyond the ‘ice-breaking’ stage in 2015?

A: Most importantly, the president tries to avoid playing the blame game. If we are to find blame, everyone has a share since the problems Burma is facing have existed since 1948. The president will try to find out the causes of problems and solve as much as he can during his term. For the problems he can’t solve during his term, he will by all means try to establish a framework and institutions to solve them. We want to build a sound foundation to proceed even if we can’t solve the problems right now. The president wants to make sure there is a secure future for people beyond 2015 by developing concepts and frameworks. We are determined to solve problems as much as we can during the remaining period of our government.

Q: President Thein Sein has said that he would get rid of those in the administrative mechanisms of government who hinder the reform process, but he has rarely taken action. Are there people in the cabinet or other branches of government who hinder the reform process?

A: No one has spoken against reforms. The problem lies in implementing reforms. First, although discretion is given, departmental personnel still fear that they will lose their entire civil service career like they did in the past when they made mistakes. Second, departmental personnel ranging from township authority to director-general levels may be reluctant to abandon the authority and associated perks they used to enjoy. It is the nature of humans. However, there are no people who are opposing the reform process as a group.

Q: It is said that people now feel the restrictions relaxed and lifted in 2011 and the years afterward have now been restored by the government or authorities, for example the issuance of visas for exiles. Is this because their mindset has not changed?

A: It is not that they are taking back the freedoms granted. The entire system has not changed. There may need to be adjustments in particular cases. Some people were allowed to come back [to Burma] without any restrictions. But then, they have come back with bad intentions. Anyone can come back. It is not that we are only inviting the supporters of our government. Anyone can criticize and point out the mistakes of our reform process. But we expect them to be constructive. We won’t accept it if someone tries to play the same old tricks [to hinder the reform process]. Therefore, there may be restrictions in certain cases as with regard to visa issuance.

Q: Which role do you think President Thein Sein will play in politics after the 2015 election? Do you think he will run for a second term?

A: As the president has said repeatedly, it depends on the situation of the country and the wishes of the people. Again, the president still does not want to announce whether he will stand for election or not because he has said he would create good foundations for the country in 2015 and after 2015. He does not want his actions to lead people to think that either he is trying to gain public support for a second term, or that he is acting irresponsibly because he is not prepared to run for a second term. I think he would honestly take bold steps to strengthen institutions and solve the country’s problems. When it is time to make the decision, he will decide depending on the situation of the country and wishes of the people.