Interview

‘I Can See the UEC Does Not Want Elections’ in Rakhine, Japanese Envoy to Myanmar Says

By Nan Lwin 4 December 2020

YANGON—Yohei Sasakawa is the chairman of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, and also serves as a special envoy of the Japanese government for national reconciliation in Myanmar. He visited Myanmar to witness the Nov. 8 general election, meeting with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Union Election Commission chairman U Hla Thein shortly before the vote.

More recently he played a key role in the temporary ceasefire agreement between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and the Arakan Army (AA), which it is hoped will set in motion elections in Rakhine State. During Sasakawa’s recent follow-up visit to Myanmar, he traveled to war-torn townships in Rakhine and met with local people, officials from township election commissions and Rakhine political party representatives. He also met again with the State Counselor and the UEC chairman in Naypyitaw. The Irrawaddy’s Nan Lwin spoke with Sasakawa about his trips to Rakhine and Naypyitaw, the peace process in Rakhine and the relationship between the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government and the Tatmadaw.

The Irrawaddy: What are the main purposes of your second visit to Myanmar?

Yohei Sasakawa: The reason for my trip was to visit the areas where the voting was canceled in the general election, especially some townships in Rakhine and Shan states. When I visited Rakhine State, local people told me that they don’t want to feel that they are being isolated or discriminated [against]. They say that they want to elect the representatives who can bring their voices to Naypyitaw on behalf of the local people. That’s why they all want elections to be held.

When I was planning to visit Rakhine, it was difficult to travel because of COVID-19. The Tatmadaw helped me in traveling. I choose two townships to visit, Kyauktaw and Buthidaung. As you know, the majority of clashes took place in those townships. During my trip, I did not meet only selected persons. I met local people randomly in the town, which included old people, young people, women and even children. They gave me the same answer; there is no more fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA since they published statements to show their willingness to hold elections in Rakhine. Their areas are now peaceful. I was amazed to see their smiling faces. Before I visited Rakhine, I thought that they might be worried and sad because they suffered a lot [due to the conflict]. I was so surprised to see that they are happy and peaceful. When I asked the vendors, they said that their sales have increased since there is no fighting. Some people said they have returned to their villages. All the people I met told me that they want the election.

What did you discuss during your most recent meeting with the chairman of the UEC?

I have shared with U Hla Thein, the chairman of the UEC, about my findings and experiences during the field trip to Rakhine. When we met [the first time] on Nov. 6, he told me that he would hold the election if security had improved in those areas. He gave me his word. So, I visited Rakhine. According to my observation, elections can be held [in those areas]. The locals are worried that they will be left alone in Rakhine State due to cancellation of voting. Based on my findings, [it] is possible to hold the election and I requested him to hold the election [during our second meeting].

The township sub-election commissions in Rakhine State also told me that they are also ready for the election. Ballot boxes are ready as well. I personally informed the chairman of the UEC that this situation is good. But he told me that the voting was canceled due to the recommendations from the Defense and Home Affairs ministries. But I told him, now the situation has changed. I have personally visited, observed the area and witnessed the situation. However, the UEC did not respond to my request clearly. No answer was given on whether they are going to hold the election. I saw in the newspaper about my meeting with the UEC. But the report did not mention what I have requested, my findings, especially a detailed account of the situation in Rakhine. I’m very disappointed in the UEC. I feel sorry at the same time.

Ethnic armed groups have already declared that they won’t disturb the election in Shan State as well. If we want 100 percent a free and fair election, I think the election should be held in Rakhine and Shan states for the areas where the voting was canceled. I think the election is very important for the establishment of a democracy, which is the goal of the State Counselor. By holding the election, the voice of the people can be heard.

What did you discuss during your most recent meeting with Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

I told her about my experiences in Rakhine and what the chairman of the UEC mentioned during the meeting on Nov. 6. He told me that he would hold the election if the security situation improved in areas where elections could not be held in the general election. I said that there is no more fighting between the AA and the Tatmadaw, and also [told her about] the situation of the people in Rakhine. Everyone said they want the election. They all expressed their hope that elections would be held in their respective areas. I requested the State Counselor to work hard and support the Rakhine people to prevent the Rakhine people from becoming isolated.

Moreover, I also expressed my deep concerns for three NLD candidates who are detained by the AA. I do not have much power, but I will try my best to release them from the AA. And I also talked about my request to the UEC that there is no problem in holding the election, including the responses from the election sub-commissions. According to my opinion, I found out that the UEC is not willing to hold the election. I also told her that I am very disappointed.

As a representative of the Japanese government for national reconciliation, I would like to continue to work for peace in Myanmar from behind [the scenes] with the guidance of the State Counselor. As a Japanese government peace envoy, I have visited Thailand more than 130 times so far to mediate the peace talks between the [Myanmar] government and ethnic armed leaders. The State Counselor told me in a previous meeting that she wants Japan to

provide more assistance to Myanmar. After I [went] back to Japan, I met with the Japanese foreign minister and the prime minister and conveyed messages from the State Counselor. I have expressed our commitments to Myanmar’s democracy and peace process and asked the State Counselor to fulfill the Rakhine people’s will. After my presentation, she told me that she had nothing to say as I have already reported [the situation] to the chairman of the UEC.

As you said, you did not receive a firm commitment from the UEC about holding elections in Rakhine. Why are they reluctant to hold elections? Is it because the UEC cannot decide for itself? What do you think? 

In my opinion, I can see that they do not want to hold elections. He is showing it… as the chairman of the UEC. But I do not know what is going on behind the scenes.

Do you think the UEC is independent?

As a foreigner, I see the UEC as an independent commission.

The people in Rakhine State want to hold elections. On the other hand, the UEC show signs that they have no intention of holding elections. You did not receive a commitment from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, either.  How will it affect the image of Myanmar’s elected government if voting cannot be held in Rakhine and Shan states?

As everyone knows, the situation in Rakhine State is extremely complex and difficult to solve. Fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA has ceased now. I am very surprised. An astonishing ceasefire agreement has occurred between the two groups, and both sides have called for elections. I think this election will lead to a ceasefire [between the AA and the Tatmadaw]. I think if we can have a ceasefire and make peace through elections, it will greatly advance the ceasefire and peace in Myanmar, including other ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] that have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA]. I think that we should not miss that opportunity. It is a very important opportunity for peace and a ceasefire with the ethnic armed groups for the future of Myanmar.

The AA has agreed to stop the fighting until the end of December. I want the government to use this opportunity well. I think the election will have a positive impact on other ethnic armed groups as well.

What did you discuss with the Arakan National Party? 

The ANP told me the same [thing] as the local Rakhine people. They said that they did not want Rakhine State to be left alone. I also heard that there are difficulties among the local people. So, the Nippon Foundation will provide emergency assistance, not from the Japanese government. The estimated amount will be US$200,000 [264.6 million kyats]. The military has said that it will provide air transport for the emergency humanitarian assistance. We will discuss in detail with locals what kind of supplies they are going to need.

You met with both State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Do you think their relationship is good? Do you expect any improvement in the relations between the military and the NLD during the party’s second term in office?

I do not exactly know their situation. However, I have heard from some of my friends in Myanmar that their relationship is not very close. I did not hear from them either. However, I think it would be good for the government and the military to work together to bring about democracy in Myanmar through cooperation between them. Neither the commander-in-chief nor the State Counselor told me directly about their relationship.

During your meeting with the commander-in-chief, did you discuss any support from Japan to help improve the military situation?

We have a collaboration program with the Myanmar military. This is being done by the Nippon Foundation. In August every year, senior military officials are invited to visit Japan to study [ways] to improve relations with both the Japanese government and military. They also learned from Japan about the role of the security sector. So far, it has been done for six consecutive years. We did not do it this year due to the COVID-19 situation. Furthermore, we are also cooperating in the administrative sector. Officials from the General Administration Department [GAD] are taking administrative training at the International University of Japan in Japan. Director-general-level and other senior-level officials from the GAD also receive administrative training from the Japanese government.

You have visited Thailand more than 130 times to mediate peace talks between the Myanmar government and EAOs. You also mediated an agreement between the Tatmadaw and the AA to cease fighting for the election. What role will you and the Japanese government play in the Myanmar peace process in future?

If there is a need for my involvement in the peace [process], I will try my best to cooperate.

Do you think a foreign-brokered settlement of a conflict in Myanmar can be sustainable in the long run?

I do not support the theoretical views and role of Western countries [in conflict resolution], especially saying that this should be done or that should have been done to stop the fighting. Myanmar has a long history. I do not think it is appropriate to engage in these activities without knowing and understanding the culture and customs of Myanmar. I do not think that it will succeed. As I said before, the people of Myanmar are the ones who have to solve the internal problems of Myanmar. If I am asked for advice, I will give it to you. But I do not say what you should do.

Do you see expect to see any progress in the peace process in the NLD’s next term?

I think it is time to review what the NLD government has done well in the last five years regarding the peace process. I also think that it is time to review what approach would be better.

Given the results of your meetings with the UEC and the State Counselor, do you expect elections will be held in Rakhine?

I am very much looking forward to elections. Japan is one of Myanmar’s closest friends. At the age of six, I experienced World War II. During the war, my house caught fire. There was no food. I survived until now because I ate the rice dispatched from Myanmar at that time. So I mean, I have a responsibility to work together for Myanmar. I feel that it is my responsibility to try the best. I am now 82 years old. I want to work hard for Myanmar for the rest of my life. I want to work for the strengthening of democracy and establishment of a united union in Myanmar. That is my biggest dream.

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