Thein Sein Holds Milestone First Press Briefing

By Yadana Htun 21 October 2012

NAYPYIDAW—Burma’s reformist president held his first press conference for local media in a national milestone after years of secrecy and censorship by the former military regime.

Thein Sein did not break any stunning news when he answered about 30 questions from local press and foreign correspondents on subjects ranging from fighting with ethnic rebels in the north to amending the country’s military-fashioned Constitution.

The ex-general’s mere appearance, however, told the story about his country’s turn from secrecy and paranoia to relative openness. Sunday’s news conference in the capital Naypyidaw ran 20 minutes past its scheduled two-hour length.

The 67-year-old, who had been prime minister under the ruling junta, looked tense as he started answering questions but soon relaxed enough to reveal a little-known sense of humor.

Explaining why he was holding the pioneering press conference, he told of being interviewed many times during his recent visit to the United States and said he had the hardest time answering questions on the inquisitorial BBC program, “Hardtalk.”

After surviving that experience, he said, he’s no longer afraid of meeting with the media. But he added that he feared he would also be criticized by Burma’s media if he did not come out to talk at home after giving so many interviews abroad.

Thein Sein avoided revealing too much, speaking only in general terms even about critical matters such as the fighting in Kachin State, which reflects a deeper, long-running problem of how much autonomy to give the large ethnic minorities living in border regions.

In what many see as an example of the government’s weakness compared to the still-influential military, his orders last year for the army to cease its fighting against the Kachin Independence Army were ignored.

“To get a ceasefire agreement is our government’s goal,” he said when asked about the matter. “It’s the people’s desire to get peace and we are doing our best for the people’s desire.”

He was also asked whether he plans to contest the 2015 general election for a second presidential term. He replied that he has been thinking only of his current term.

Thein Sein was asked if he would give opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a role in his government. His reforms lured her National League for Democracy party back into electoral politics, and it should be a major challenge to his party in the next polls.

Whether or not she takes a role in government depends on her, Thein Sein said.