Human Rights

‘Constitutional Amendment Is an Internal Affair of Our Country’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 12 November 2014

On Wednesday and Thursday, Burma will host the 25th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit and the East Asia Summit in the capital Naypyidaw. Top leaders from across Asia will attend, as will US President Obama and Russian Prime Minister Medvedev.

Ahead of the biggest annual meeting in Asia, which Burma is hosting for the first time in its history, Minister of Information Ye Htut talks about the event, disputes in the South China Sea, and the meeting between President Thein Sein and President Obama.

Question: You have said that during this Asean Summit a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea could be completed, what are your expectations now? (The Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea is a set of rules that would guide maritime conduct between Asean members and China, which has disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.)

Answer: No, I didn’t mean that a Code of Conduct will be drafted, but the process to formulate it. Much remains to be done to establish a CoC. Discussions on formulation of the CoC have been going on for almost three years, but there is still no progress. So, as we hold the Asean chairmanship this year, we have been trying together with all the stakeholders to develop a solid framework to lay down the CoC as soon as possible.

Q: The Asean Summit is the last meeting Myanmar is hosting during its Asean chairmanship. How could the government show that its Asean chairmanship has been a success?

A: I believe [the summit] could deepen relations not only among Asean members, but also between Asean members and adjacent regional countries. Tensions and conflicts have largely de-escalated [in the region]. For example, tensions over the South China Sea were pretty high earlier this year, but now most have eased. Thailand and Cambodia could find a solution among themselves [over outstanding border issues]. There are almost no tensions among other countries. So, we believe we built consensus—these are the gains.

Q: Generally, the country that holds the Asean chair reaps some political and economic gains. What has Myanmar gained from being Asean chair?

A: That fact that Myanmar takes the Asean chair means that Myanmar is reconnecting with other countries. Since the investors began to have trust in the stability of Myanmar and its reconnecting with the international community, investments have increased. The hotel and tourism industry receives the direct benefits [from increasing visitors]. Another gain is that Myanmar businessmen have attended a lot of [Asean] meetings and have come to understand the challenges and opportunities of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) that will be established in 2015.

Q: Is it correct that President Thein Sein will meet Indonesian President Jokowi and Russian Prime Minister Medvedev during the East Asia summit? Why will he meet them?

A: He will also meet the Indian Prime Minister [Modi] today [Tuesday]. The Indonesian president will meet with President U Thein Sein because he is a new president and has to introduce himself to other Asean leaders, according to Asean tradition. Again, they will exchange their views.

The Russian Prime Minister [Medvedev] will come as the Russian President [Putin] is not able to. The views of Asean countries on the Ukraine situation and the attack on the Malaysian airplane [MH17] were presented at a previous Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. It is hoped that the Russian prime minister will discuss these issues in the meeting with President U Thein Sein.

Q: What will be the focus of the meeting between President Obama and President Thein Sein?

A: President U Thein Sein made 11 commitments [for reforms] in his meeting with US President Obama before [in 2012]. We’re going to discuss the progress in fulfilling those commitments. Some could not be done by government alone as some call for cooperation with other stakeholders. Some commitments therefore have yet to be met. It is not that we have stopped.

[In one of the commitments], we agreed to open an UN Human Rights Commissioner Office in Myanmar as we would like to show our commitment to improving the human rights situation in Myanmar and bring it on a par with international norms. Three representatives from the Bangkok-based UN Human Rights Commissioner Office have come to Myanmar and studied the human rights situation, mainly in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and they provided recommendations. So, even though the agreement has not been signed we have been cooperating technically. We will explain this [to Obama].

We alone cannot build peace. We have to make peace with 16 [ethnic armed] groups. They have their own views and it takes time. We’ll explain this. We think [the US president] would discuss these issues frankly with us.

Q: How do you think President Thein Sein will respond if the US president pushes him on Myanmar’s political issues, including constitutional amendments? (The government refuses to amend the Constitution, which blocks Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency and gives the military political powers.)

A: I can’t say exactly. However, what we assert is that constitutional amendment is an internal affair of our country. All the stakeholders have agreed that the Constitution needs to be amended and it should be amended in line with prescribed provisions [from Parliament]. This is our position. However, we understand from statements by the US [officials] that it would not say directly which part (of the Constitution) should be amended.

Q: Some assess that the US administration’s attitude towards the Myanmar government has softened? Why do you think US has changed its attitude?

A: The US has been assisting countries in their democratization process since the end of Cold War. So, they understand the challenges that arise during a transition. They therefore accurately assess the actions of our government, for example in the peace process. We have to talk with 16 [ethnic armed] groups while a new [political] system is being introduced. They [the US] understand these challenges.

Q: Do you think President U Thein Sein will talk about lifting remaining US sanctions on Myanmar in his meeting with President Obama? (Most US sanctions were suspended, but not lifted and some remain in place.)

A: We will focus on cooperation rather than talking about sanctions. We will give priority to the peace process and human rights issues during the talks. President Obama has already done all in his power to reduce sanctions against Myanmar and the remaining sanctions are up to the decisions of the Congress. So, we will not force him to reduce sanctions.