from Asia Unbound

Washington Post Interview with Thein Sein

January 20, 2012

Myanmar's president Thein Sein arrives at the Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center before the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali on November 17, 2011.
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Today’s Washington Post has an extended interview with Burmese president Thein Sein, who met Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth. The interview is fascinating simply because of its novelty: Burmese leaders in the past shunned reporters like they had the plague. When I worked for a newswire in Bangkok in 2000, we tried to get even lower-ranking Burmese officials to talk to us about very noncontroversial subjects, such as upcoming Asean meetings. We never got anywhere.

Thein Sein’s interview actually does not contain too much new detail: He says the same things about his commitment to reform that he has said in public before, and he touts the (genuine) achievements he has made in the past year, including reintegrating the NLD into politics and signing several cease-fires with ethnic militias including the Karen National Union, which have fought the government in Myanmar for six decades.

Unfortunately in the published interview, Thein Sein does not address many of the critical questions that have skeptics still wondering whether Myanmar’s transition is for real. (Perhaps a longer transcript of the interview will become available?) He talks about the cease-fires, but says nothing about the government’s war with the Kachin, which is actually heating up, as documented in a fine New York Times piece today. He says nothing about the serious obstacles, besides sanctions, to investment in the country, including virtually no rule of law and a population that has been excluded from gaining knowledge of IT and computers for most of the past two decades. He brushes off repeated, troubling allegations of Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea and its missile and nuclear collaboration.

Thein Sein has made a lot of progress, and to be fair, this was his first interview with foreign media. But as Myanmar’s transition continues, the leadership will not be able to gloss over these severe challenges indefinitely.