Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It’s Fair to Say That President U Thein Sein Is Burma’s Reform Icon’

By The Irrawaddy 13 February 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week I will speak with the sole spokesperson for President U Thein Sein as well as Minister of Information U Ye Htut. We will talk about the successes and failures of President U Thein Sein over the past five years, and if the state-run propaganda newspapers of the Ministry of Information will be needed once the democratic government has fully come to power. We will also talk about [Ye Htut’s] plans for after he retires. I’m Irrawaddy English Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The five-year term of incumbent President U Thein Sein is ending soon. What are his top three achievements out of all of his political and economic reforms?

Ye Htut: The most important achievement is that the government brought those who were outside political life and not involved in the 2010 election, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, into the political process. The second achievement is that the government initiated a process of ceasefire negotiations that could lead to political dialogue for the very first time in our country. And the third is that the government reintegrated Burma, a former pariah state, into the international community. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is said to be Burma’s democracy icon, it’s fair to say that President U Thein Sein is Burma’s reform icon or the icon of a Burma Spring.

KZM: One or two years after President U Thein Sein took office in 2011, he was recognized by both Burmese people and by the international community as a real reformist. But after 2012, some criticized that the reform process has slowed and even stalled. Why did this happen?

YH: It is because of high expectations. When we initially assumed power, people did not have trust in us. They had low expectations. After we saw a degree of success [with reforms], people’s expectations grew. The president and our cabinet, however, have very limited capacity. First, we do not have much experience and expertise—one of our weakest points. Second, the president’s mandate stated in the Constitution is limited. Under such circumstances, the government could not meet the expectations of the people. Still, looking back, it is fair to say that we have come a long way. More importantly, along the way, we were able to avoid bloodshed and transition to a relatively stable stage with few problems.

KZM: We found that U Thein Sein, as the top leader of the country, could have done more regarding constitutional reform and other important issues. But he didn’t. Why?

YH: He stated both in his first and final speech that the first five years is really just the first stage of reform, and if the 2015 election could be held peacefully and freely, [the country] would be able to move on to the next stage. It is his strategic goal. You said the president could have done more. Yes, there were many things he could have done along the way to gain political popularity. But then—

KZM: For example, [the suspension of] the Myitsone Dam helped him gain popularity.

YH: Yes, there are also many other things. But when the chance to gain popularity by pleasing the crowd was at odds with the stability of the reform process, the president sacrificed the opportunity to grow in popularity for more attention to his strategic goal—to get through 2015 in a stable way. Rather than focusing on getting re-elected, he focused on holding a peaceful election in 2015 and ensuring that whoever won the election could take power peacefully. Therefore, he had to leave certain things untouched. And unfortunately, that has drawn criticism.

KZM: We recognize the international community has given credit to the reforms initiated by the president. Burmese expats have also come back home. But the results of the 2015 election strongly indicate that people do not like President U Thein Sein or his government or his party. Can this be said to be a failure or a success for the president?

YH: Firstly, the fact that people voted freely in 2015 is a success of the president’s reforms. Secondly, the views of the people on the president, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the former administrative mechanism may be different. People may like and support the president personally, but they may simply not want the old system and its procedures.

KZM: Here I would like to question how much the president understands about the will of the people. The president on his visit to Irrawaddy Division said that “we have made changes. What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism.” Doesn’t this imply that he does not understand the voices and wishes of the people?

YH: It is not like that. The president was talking about the political system. He wanted to stress that the country has already adopted democracy and that there is no other system to switch to and that we need to improve this system [democracy]. But because his speech was taken out of context, it could lead to some misunderstandings. To which I say, take a look at the speeches he has given and the acts he has carried out during his term, and it is easy to see that he listens to the voices of the people. He did what he could within the current framework, striking a balance between what is possible and what should be done.

KZM: Why has the Ministry of Information still existed throughout the reform process? Why do state-run newspapers, which are widely regarded as propaganda for the government, still exist?

YH: It is because you private media outlets do not tell all the things that we want to tell the people. That’s why we need to be here.

KZM: But doesn’t that look like propaganda to a democratic society?

YH: Every government wants to convince its people of its policies. This has also been true for the US government. This was explicitly termed “propaganda” in the past. It was later changed to “public relations,” and then to “public diplomacy.” In essence, every government has to mobilize public support and has to use the media in doing so. In countries where media pluralism flourishes, [the government] uses private media outlets. In countries like ours, however, where private media don’t report the things they don’t want to, there must be a government-run newspaper and media, I think. That’s why we exist.

KZM: But doesn’t this tarnish the image of democracy in a country that’s in transition?

YH: Rather than arguing about if the existence of an organization is in line with democracy or not, I would focus on whether the existence of that organization contributes to the flourishing of democracy. There are [similar] organizations in different forms under different names in different countries. In my view, the existence of the Ministry of Information does not affect the development of media or Burma’s democratic transition between 2010 and 2015. Frankly, that you can talk to me now, face to face, is only because our Ministry of Information invited you and recommended you for an entry visa.

KZM: The Ministry of Information abolished pre-publication censorship in 2012, providing a great deal of press freedom. But your ministry could have granted greater press freedom. Why didn’t you do that?

YH: We need to strike a balance between taking big steps and making sure each step we take is concrete. There is huge room for improvement in terms of the legal and market conditions of our media environment, and we—both state-run and private media—have yet to improve ourselves much in terms of ethics and expertise. So again, we are just trying to make sure each step is concrete. The president has said that taking fast steps will help us win credit, but if the consequences of being fast can affect the country’s stability, we will sacrifice popularity to focus on what should get done.

KZM: If the incoming NLD government decides to keep the Ministry of Information and offer you the minister position, what will you do?

YH: I have written my history with U Thein Sein. I would not play on another team. Even if the NLD decides to keep the Ministry of Information, it should appoint someone who has grown with the party and knows its policies, more precisely, those of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

KZM: Should state-run newspapers like Kyemon, Myanma Alinn and the Global New Light of Myanmar continue to run under the incoming NLD government?

YH: I have trained the state-run media how to acquire the ethics and expertise, which are needed to create public service media. My staff members have improved from only being able to put out [in newspapers] the news given to them to making reports from various angles. This is what I have done for the ministry as a whole. For individuals, I have trained them to be able to work shoulder to shoulder with their peers in the world of private media, even if the Ministry of Information and state-run newspapers are abolished. I believe that my staff personnel will be able to survive in the media world whether or not the ministry continues to exist or not. And I’m proud of myself for having done this.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government will seemingly abolish the Ministry of Information bit by bit, and privatize the state-run newspapers. Will they be able to do it easily over a short amount of time? What is your advice to them?

YH: Firstly, I want to tell the ministers who are to take the reins of the ministries that everyone has his own expectations and has formed his own preconceived idea of the ministries they lead. When they actually assume office, however, they should forget these ideas for a while and try to understand the nature of the ministry and staff members before making changes. Otherwise, they will not be able to reach their goal smoothly.

KZM: Suppose the Ministry of Information and state-run newspapers cease to exist next year. Do you think press freedom in Burma will be much better than it is now?

YH: Whether press freedom will improve or not has nothing to do with the existence of state-run newspapers, I don’t think. It depends on two things—if media pluralism can be maintained, and if the government will be able to build good relationships with private media.

KZM: You said you have no plan to work with the new government. So what have you planned to do after March 31?

YH: Firstly, I will rest for three months. Then I will do a scholarship or fellowship with an educational organization. Afterward, I’ll try to write about my experiences with the reform process. I’ll work together with local NGOs that are engaged in raising the political awareness of the public, if there are such NGOs.

KZM: Do you have plans to establish [an NGO] of your own?

YH: I don’t. But I’ll also write political reviews on my Facebook and write essays—this is an interest that I’ve recently taken up.

KZM: Will you continue to be a man of the media?

YH: I’ll be a citizen journalist.

KZM: Referring to what you just said, what do you mean by scholarships?

YH: It is not a scholarship. It is a fellowship. If there are organizations interested in Burma’s affairs and if they want, I’ll give lectures on my experiences and take part in discussions and write a paper, if possible.

KZM: We heard that President U Thein Sein will continue to chair the USDP. The USDP may rise again in 2020. If that were to happen, would you have any ambitions to re-enter politics or re-engage with the administration?

YH: It is said that a week’s time is pretty long in the political world. And you are asking me about the next five years. I don’t know.

KZM: So it is still early?

YH: Yes, it is still early. I will be able to tell you around January 2020.

KZM: Thank you.