Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar's union minister for foreign affairs, discusses Myanmar's democratic and economic reforms and anticipated political transition ahead of national elections slated for November. During the session, the foreign minister addresses the government's policies on negotiating a nationwide cease-fire with insurgent groups, the nature of the Myanmar-China relationship, and implementing identification and citizenship verification procedures. The minister notes that the migrant crisis that flared in the Bay of Bengal earlier this spring was the result of a rise in human smuggling, transporting migrants illegally in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, to other neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
MODERATOR: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations today. As you know, we have a conversation with Union Minister Wunna Maung Lwin. And I’m also asked to announce that our next meeting is Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Iraq. That’s tomorrow at 10:45 a.m. to noon. And let’s see, let me just introduce Minister Lwin first.
He was appointed the Union minister of foreign affairs for the Republican of the Union of Myanmar in February, 2011. You all have his bio, so I won’t go through it thoroughly, but he previously was an ambassador to—the ambassador to the United Nations, and to international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, as well as Israel, France and Belgium. So he has quite a number of diplomatic appointments in his past, and is a very international guy, and previously had a military career up to the rank of colonel. And I believe this is his second time at the Council today. So we look forward to chatting.
The format is that I’ll be engaging the minister in questions for about 30 minutes, and then we will open the floor to Q&A after that.
So I would like to start out today by asking you kind a very simple question, but I think it’s a question that everybody has on their minds when they talk about your country, and that is the name of it. And so as you—(laughter)—as many of you know, the military changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. And the U.S. government has not recognized that name change and continues to, in diplomatic affairs, call the country Burma. And you have taken some objection to this.
And I just want to add a little personal note, which is that when I was last in Burma, back in 1998, when I was detained and deported after meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, she told me at that meeting that the reason to refuse the name change is that it would legitimize an illegitimate government, and that until there was an elected government that has changed the name with the will of the people, we should not honor this name change. But I wonder if you can tell us the reasons why we should call it Myanmar.
LWIN: OK, thank you very much. First of all, I would like to express my appreciation for inviting me to the Council of Foreign Relations today. I am really glad to see the attendees here. And I’m greatly honored to come here to answer your questions. So it’s a good question that you ask me about the name Myanmar.
So, Myanmar is our historical name. During the time of the kings of Myanmar, there was two inscriptions that mention our country as Myanmar, since the 10th or 11th century. And in the records in the Chinese history, also they call us Myan-ching (sp). Myan-ching (sp) is the Chinese version of Myanmar. When the British occupied Myanmar in 1885, they call us Burma because (Bamars ?) are the Burmese—are the majority of the country. About 70 percent of the people are (Bamars ?) or Burmese. So the British called us Burma in general.
But the country is comprised of many national races, so we collectively call ourself Myanmar. In our Myanmar language, when we regained independence, we called ourselves—(in a foreign language, the continues in English)—means the Union of Myanmar. But as the British called us Burma for nearly a century, in English language the responsible persons at that time have missed to change that into Myanmar. In our old language, in our actual documents, we call ourselves Myanmar.
So in English, they call us Union of Burma. But that is the difficult situation when there were some insurgence problems started in Myanmar when we regained independence because the collective name of Myanmar was not used in the English language. But there are some mistrust among the ethnic races that they were left behind because they were minorities. So it is very important for the solidarity of our country. As a union we have to all the people in Myanmar are indigenous. We do not call them ethnic minorities. We are all indigenous. So we collectively call ourselves Myanmar.
That’s why we have to change the English nomenclature into the Union of Myanmar, because we have called ourselves Myanmar since the time of the Myanmar kinds. And that is why we changed. This is the only main reason I changed ourselves, because it is very important for the union solidarity to build confidence among our national races, different—because you know that we have about more than 100 national races in the country. So we collectively call ourselves Myanmar.
MODERATOR: So the name Burma just reflects the ethnic groups, the two-thirds majority of Burmans, and the name Myanmar is more reflective of all of the different ethnic groups within Myanmar.
LWIN: Yes, that’s right. Yes.
MODERATOR: OK, I think that clears it up. Thank you.
I want to ask you—I think everybody in this room, one of the reasons you’re all here is because we’re very interested your upcoming elections in November, I guess, the 8th, is that right?
LWIN: No, November the 8th, yes.
MODERATOR: November 8th. So one question I have about it, and I want to ask you a few questions and I’m sure we’ll take more from the audience afterwards—I’m sorry, from the members afterwards. There’s a—the parliament has been suspended in this interim period. There’s a bit of a political vacuum, decisions aren’t really being made. And the next president probably won’t be chosen or come into office until next March, if I’m not mistaken. Are we in danger of kind of the reform path stalling at all because of this interim period? There’s this kind of vacuum at the moment.
LWIN: No, this—what our plan and our process is that we have this upcoming election on the 8th of November. And now we are in the middle of the campaigning season for 60 days before the election, starting from the 8th of September and will end on the 6th of November. So during this campaigning season, the parliament has to suspend. And after that, there will be the session of the parliament to be resumed before the government—the change of the government—before the new government is formed in March. There will be another session of parliament before the next—before the establishment of the new government next year. There will be no vacuum.
MODERATOR: OK. (Laughter.) But as far as what we’re expecting from the outcome of the election, I mean, currently, as far as I understand, there doesn’t seem to be any way for the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to actually serve as president if the NLD wins the election. I mean, do we anticipate that changing, or what can we expect in that regard?
LWIN: Yes. For the time being we have abide by the existing constitution. So the constitution doesn’t allow not only Aung San Suu Kyi, but every other person who are in his category for illegibility to become a resident. So after the election—I don’t know what the result will be. But after the election, I think the new government will be formed under this very existing constitution—the present constitution.
MODERATOR: So it’s possible then that the NLD could win the election, and yet the leader of the NLD could not hold elected office. Is that correct?
LWIN: I don’t know whether they—the outcome of the election. So this—the people who win the election can decide about how—what they will continue to do with the constitution or the electoral process.
MODERATOR: And so there are some people on the other side of that who say, you know, an NLD victory that would completely append the ruling establishment as we know it, and as we’ve known it for many years now, would be a little destabilizing for the country, and that, you know, one of the reasons that Myanmar has managed to remain a single state, which you’ve yourself been involved in, is because of the control of the USDP and the support of the military in doing that. Are there concerns? Do you hear from people in the country that it could be too destabilizing to completely change at this point? Or what are people thinking right now?
LWIN: What the people are thinking right now is they are in general—all the people, when you ask them what they would like their country to be, is that—the true desire of the people is that political stability and peace to be preserved throughout the country. And another thing is the social-economic development of the people. So while for the political stability, you know, that all the political parties or political forces to be united in further building the country into a democratic society. This is one priority.
And the other thing is peace. So we have been—that experience of insurgency problems since we regained independence in 1948. So now we are in the process of negotiating to have a nationwide ceasefire agreement. We hope that it will be—we’ll be able to sign it in the very immediate future. But after that, we have to have this political negotiation or political dialogue with those insurgent groups as well. So the people wishes to have a peaceful, stabilized, democratic nation. So I think what people are anticipating is that they would like to have a peaceful, transforming into—towards a democratic society, which they have longed for so many years now. So I think the government has to fulfill this aspiration. It’s what the present government is performing and implementing. And I think the incoming new government will have to listen to the desire of the people also.
MODERATOR: So just looking at the history of your neighbor, Thailand, the history of the military returning to the barracks under a civilian rule has not been—well we haven’t seen it happen very often. Occasionally, and then they come back into power and they say, oh, there’ll never be another coup, and then there is another coup. What can we expect from the military in Myanmar in the event of an NLD victory?
LWIN: So I think the commander in chief has met with the media a few days back, and he told that there will be no turning back. So because the military, as a—you know, that the military in Myanmar is the one who have to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the country. So the military will have done its part of this integrating of the country, as well as the democratic values to be flourishing in our country. So this is the responsibility of the country to have a very stable and peaceful nation, so that we can—so that the people can establish a country which they wish to see, a flourishing democracy in Myanmar.
MODERATOR: Do you think that political change would help or potentially destabilize the current states of various ceasefire agreements that have been signed with the different rebellious factions in the different states in Shan, in Kachin, and various other places. Would that help or hurt?
LWIN: Yes. The first step is the nationwide ceasefire agreement. This will—all these stakeholders should be—participate in that. After that, there will be political negotiations within the political mainstream because you know that, in the states, as you have mentioned, there are people who were elected by the people. They were in the parliaments, they were in the state parliament. And there was armed groups who was holding their arms, did not represent the people as a whole. So they have to come to the negotiating table, and they have to have a political dialogue with all the stakeholders in the future also, so that there will be no insurgency problems.
You know that this is one of the challenge of our country, because some of the countries, there are only one or two insurgency groups, but we have more than 10, about—more than 16 armed groups in various part of the country. So we have to negotiate with all of them. And we have to reach an agreement with all of them. And we have to invite them to come to the political mainstream to build our country and our union.
MODERATOR: So, again, a change of government will encourage them, or do you think that will provide them a chance to say, well, the military is no longer in power, gee, we can break away more easily now?
LWIN: Because we have the commitment from all these groups that they will not secede from the union. So this is the promise.
MODERATOR: Yes, well, we know how those go sometimes. (Laughter.) OK. You mentioned previously about the desire of the people to have continued economic progress, right? And, you know, everybody’s interested in growth and betterment of the economy, improvement of lives in the middle class, right? Though, from what I’ve seen, I can’t really figure out—neither party has really clearly set out an economic agenda in their policies, spelled it out, told people what to expect. I mean, so what do you think we can expect in terms of openness to foreign investment, adherence—continued adherence to, you know, ASEAN and signing of free trade agreements. I mean, tell us what the landscape is going to look like.
LWIN: Yes. On the part of the economic openness, we have enacted a new foreign investment law which creates a conductive environment for foreign entrepreneurs to do business in Myanmar. We have—gave an emphasis for the job creation of the people, as you have mentioned about the middle-income people. So we are encouraging small- and medium-sized enterprises. On the other hand, we have been inviting foreign entrepreneurs to invest in Myanmar. But some of the obstacles in this way is the economic sanctions imposed upon Myanmar, especially by the United States.
So they—even though the administration has relaxed some of the restriction, the legislature part has too left those bills and laws enacted in the Congress. So I think when these economic sanctions are lifted, many—there’s an opportunity for many of the U.S. entrepreneurs and investors to do business in Myanmar. For us, we are opening up and we are inviting foreign entrepreneurs and investors to do business in Myanmar. So many of the interesting companies, big firms, are coming into Myanmar. They are investing in Myanmar now.
MODERATOR: So what does a free trade, open to foreign investment Myanmar look like? I mean, suddenly you’ll have multinational corporations coming in, competing with local manufacturers. Maybe don’t have as high quality products. I mean, the same thing that other countries have found in having a free trade agreement with China, which I think you’re—you mean to implement by the end of this year, that’s the timeframe for it, right? How does that help Myanmar? How does it hurt Myanmar?
LWIN: For us, we will have the—we are encouraging our Myanmar national—Myanmar citizens to have this—to do business and to work together with the foreign entrepreneurs, as well as for joint ventures or something like that. And on the part of the free trade agreement, as we are a member of ASEAN. So ASEAN will start this economic community by the end of this year. And there will be some free trade agreements with the dialogue partners as well. So we have—as a member of ASEAN, we are open to this free trade agreement as well. We are participating in that.
And for the country to have a good opportunities to uplift the economic development, I think we have to—we have enacted some domestic investment laws for our Myanmar citizens as well, encouraging to do business by them, so all with cooperation with the foreign investors as well.
MODERATOR: Well, so as you see in this country, you know, every time we try to sign free trade agreements, there’s always a group that says, this is going to lose American jobs. This will cost American companies. This will be bad for our economy. You know, are there any concerns like that in Myanmar, or do you see everything as just a positive?
LWIN: Yes, because for the time being what we need is the financial resources for the development and the technological know-how, technological transfer for manufacturing or in the industrialized sector—industry sectors, or in—now there is the human resource development. So we have with the technological transfer or technical know-how coming into the country, it will be the opportunity for us—for the human resource development of our own people, which can create job opportunities to those people.
MODERATOR: So, net positive then?
MODERATOR: Let’s turn to relations with China. And Myanmar’s previous relationship with China, before the recent changes of the last, say, four years, many people have attributed the opening up to the West and the desire for political change and transformation to pressure from China, that China was—there was a little bit of exasperation with the way China was treating Myanmar, as a natural resource backyard. And therefore, having more influence from the West could be a counterbalance to China, and therefore much better for the country as a whole. Do you see that process now playing out? Is it working? How are things with China now?
LWIN: With the relationship with China, it goes back to our history. So as a neighbor, we have been sharing the common border of about more than 2,000 kilometers. We have had a very friendly relationship with China, in the past and in the present as well. So we have changed our political system and our economic system, but China—the Chinese government and the Chinese entrepreneurs understand the situation, because we are implementing what our people desire. We are fulfilling the aspiration of people in changing this political economic system.
So this is our—as a sovereign nation, we have to move forward with this desire of the people in fulfilling their aspirations. So the Chinese do not influence our political transformation, as well as our economic cooperation with the other—Western countries, because for the time the Chinese are the biggest investors in Myanmar. So I think with the incoming of the Western investments and Western entrepreneurship, for—if you look at China, also they have opened up to the Western countries, especially to the United States. There is a lot of American investment in China. So they will not hinder our relationship between China and Myanmar.
MODERATOR: You had a recent border incident with China earlier this year. Have relations now been fully restored and repaired?
LWIN: Yes. There are some problems in the border areas because of one of the insurgent groups that make some offensive in the border areas. So the government has to take military action on that. So we have—as it is very sensitive in the border areas, we have to talk directly with the Chinese government, as well as military—do military also. The problem has been solved. And we have this—it didn’t affect the bilateral relationship because we have to talk straightforward to each other and openly we have to discuss about the matter.
MODERATOR: OK. I’m going to ask you one more question before I open it to the floor, and that is about the Rohingyas.
LWIN: Oh, yes.
MODERATOR: And, you know, Human Rights Watch has accused Myanmar of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingyas. You have tens of thousands of people fleeing to your neighboring countries, so that it has become an international, you know, foreign issue—foreign relations issue. What policies can we expect from the government going forward?
LWIN: Yes, first of all, about the terminology, the Rohingya. So Myanmar government do not recognize the term, because this problem has started from the colonial legacy, because in 1824, when Myanmar was occupied by the British after the first Anglo-Burmese War, some of the farm laborers from the western—our western neighboring country were brought into the Rakhine state, as farm laborers. So when we regained independence, there were a sizable population of those people residing in the area. So these are economic migrants which were brought from the western—from our western neighboring country by the British East Indies Company to work in the farm lands.
So after we regain independence, we have a problem with these people in the Rakhine state, because the—those people were armed by the British government when they withdrew from Myanmar, when the Japanese invaded Myanmar in the Second World War. So those people with these arms pressed all the Rakhine native people to the southern part of the Rakhine state. So there were some grievances among the native people, that’s had the long mistrust between the two communities. And after we regained independence, and according to our citizenship law which has been promulgated in 1982, the third-generation from those people who have come to live in Myanmar has a right to apply for the citizenship. That’s what we are practicing up till now.
And the problem is that there were influx of migration from the western part of our country, because when India regained independence in 1947, India was separated into East Pakistan, West Pakistan and India. From those who were separated from the Indian mainland, there was an influx of migration from this East Pakistan. And after, when—in 1971, when East Pakistan was transformed in the Bangladesh, there were another influx of migration to our country. So in 1992, the government conducted the census in that area. And then many of those illegal migrants went back to Bangladesh. This is not the religious persecution or any other kind of persecution that made those people return back to their own places. This is the true facts about this issue.
And on the present day, as we have been conducting the verification process for the citizenship, some of those people who have illegally migrated from people—from the other country—they left the country. And another part is some of the people were smuggled out by the human traffickers for the greener pasture, to get job opportunities in other places in the region.
So the recent problem of the boat people in the Andaman Sea and in the neighboring Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia, those are people from Bangladesh which have been seeking job opportunities who were smuggled out by the traffickers. So we have negotiated that with our neighboring countries as well.
And in May and June of this year we—the Myanmar navy has rescued some boat drifted in our territorial waters. But we have saved about—rescued about 900 boat people, and we have been giving temporary shelter. They have been given temporary shelters and humanitarian assistance to those people. And with the cooperation with the Bangladesh government, after thorough verification of those people among the 1,000 people, they found out that more than 80 percent of the people were from Bangladesh. So we have sent them back to Bangladesh. So those boat people issue in the Andaman Sea, on the Bay of Bengal, are not—the majority are not from Myanmar. They were about less than 20 percent from Myanmar. So after rescuing them, we have sent them back to their respective places.
MODERATOR: But they have a bit of a statelessness issue, right? I mean, Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and treats them horribly and puts them in effectively concentration camps. And of course they’re going to flee. So I think, you know, as a lot of Americans in the room who are even less than third-generation Americans—all of our ancestors, unless you’re Native American, have come from somewhere else—I mean, is there room in a modern Myanmar state for resettlement of people of, say, you know, Muslim ethnic—
LWIN: So the people were—those people were living in Rakhine State, northern part of the Rakhine State. They are still there. So we are working on the verification process. So some of them were given the—in general—(inaudible)—the white cards. Now, the white cards were terminated, and then we are issuing them with new identity cards. And the verification process is ongoing. So I think these are the problems many countries are facing around the world, not only in Myanmar, if you look at Europe—
MODERATOR: The largest migration in the world.
LWIN: In America, also in the rural areas of Mexico, there are some problems with them.
MODERATOR: Well, I’m a little delinquent on allowing questions from the floor. So I’ll let other people follow up. Let’s take one here please. Please state your name and affiliation. And please be reminded that this meeting is on the record.
Q: Thank you very much. My name is Janet Benshoof, Global Justice Center.
After a four-year on-the-ground investigation, Harvard Law School lawyers concluded, using the standards of the International Criminal Court, that Myanmar’s General—Major General Ko Ko has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Karen ethnic group.
I have a two-part question. First, could you explain, given that Myanmar has been in armed conflict for 60 years, if there have been any prosecution of military commanders for international crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide? And second, could you explain the government process by which, six months after the Harvard report, the government selected General Ko Ko to present and defend Myanmar’s human rights record before the Human Rights Council next month?
Thank you very much.
LWIN: Well, first—to answer your first question, there is no Myanmar general prosecuted or facing any kind of trial in the International Criminal Court or any other court, because some of the allegations were unfounded and untrue, because whenever there is the military operations or whenever there is the insurgency problem, every country has to defend their people, especially the innocent people, who it hampers their livelihood by those insurgent groups.
So for the military commander that you have mentioned, he is the commander of the southern Myanmar region. So in his region there was insurgent problems. And he commanded some of the military operations in that area. That’s all. He is doing his responsibility as a military commander to defend those people from the scourge of insurgency. This is one question.
Another thing is that in the next month I think we will be submitting our universal periodic report to the Human Rights Council. So we will be sending a delegation and we’ll be submitting our universal periodic review for the second time.
MODERATOR: OK, a question here in the center.
Q: Thank you very much and for your remarks. My name is Lara Setrakian. I’m with News Deeply.
I’d simply like to know whether you believe the people of Rakhine State, the Rohingya, deserve more government protection from violent attacks, which have often been consistently deadly attacks.
LWIN: To answer your question, there is no what you call the attacks on the people—on those people in the Rakhine State. We have these incidents in June 2012. This is the only incident—(inaudible)—in that area. So this is the—not the kind of this, what you call, the offensive from the native Rakhine. This all because of very ugly criminal case that led to the communal violence in that area, because at the time one Buddhist Rakhine girl was raped and murdered by three Muslim youths. That has sparked—(inaudible)—violence in that area. And consequently there are about 200 people, both Buddhist and Muslims, who lost their lives. This is the only incident that has occurred in Rakhine State, and the criminal investigation has taken place. And those perpetrators were brought into justice. That what we have done in the Rakhine state. There’s no more bloodshed or no more killing in that area after that.
Q: But there has been the passage of laws that now prohibit, say, marriages between Muslims and Buddhists. You know, there were nine embassies last week in Yangon that actually issued statements of concern over growing religious intolerance.
LWIN: Yes. The four bills were passed by the parliament. But it is not mentioned or—(inaudible)—to the merits between Myanmar and the Muslims, because it is the request of the people in writing—representing those people sent letters to the government and the government had to draft these four bills and then submitted to the parliament. And the parliament has passed this. It is not in order to deal with the Muslims people in the country.
MODERATOR: Well, I guess it’s for the next government to sort out.
MODERATOR: Let’s see. OK, back here. Mr. Levin.
Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.
I enjoyed my visit to Burma. My daughter was recently there on vacation. She had a very serious criticism: you could not use credit cards, so she couldn’t buy any rubies. I hope you will do something about that. (Laughter.)
But my question is, not talking about Kachins, Karens, Shans, all of those various kinds of security problems, but talking about the governance of Burma in the future, you have democracies like the U.S. and Canada with very, very strong powers reserved for states, provinces, local governments. You have other democracies, like Japan and France, which are governed strongly from the center. How do you see Burmese governance developing?
LWIN: Thank you very much. According to our constitution and the present movement, after the elected government has taken office since 2011, we have the state and regional governments. We have—there’s chief ministers at each state and regions. And each state and regions have their own parliament. So those people who were elected at the state and regional level were in their parliaments as legislature for the—for their own state and regions and they have their own chief ministers. The chief ministers were the Cabinet member of the central government. So this is how the formation of our government in the present system. In the future as well, we will be practicing this system in accordance with the constitution.
Q: How many?
LWIN: About 14—14 states and regions, and about five self-autonomous regions.
MODERATOR: Here in the front.
Q: Thank you. My name is Joel Mentor from Barclays.
So in the discussion it’s come up how important the military is as an institution. And also, based on your experience as an officer in the army, I wanted to get your views on the officer—the education or the officer corps. What are some of your thoughts in terms of civil-military relations, counterinsurgency, humanitarian efforts? It seems to me that an enlightened and highly educated officer corps will be very important to see which way the institution goes and its impact on Myanmar’s democratization.
LWIN: Yes. For the producing military officers, we have this military academy. We call this the Defense Services Academy, which I graduated in 1974. This is a four-years course. And these young people who pass the matriculation can join the military academy. The training term was four years. And after the graduation they were—after the graduation they were given bachelor degrees for the young officers. And there were various military causes throughout the ranks. And we have this national defense college where the colonel and above officers can attain. And after the graduation they were given the master degree.
So this is the education system in our military. And for the civil-military administration, we have been cooperating with the United States as well, so to—for the future trainings of the military personnel by the civil-military administration system. And with the United Kingdom also we are discussing about that. So this is what the military personnel, all the officers, are training in our system.
MODERATOR: OK, lots of hands. Let’s go to this side right here. Actually—well—
Q: Hello. I’m Ella Gudwin with Vision Spring.
I’ve had the opportunity to study at Johns Hopkins alongside Burmese students, and I was very pleased with the experience and want to support the Burmese-Myanmar government’s efforts to engage in collaborations, particularly with education and cultural exchange. Based on that experience, I had the opportunity to be in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis and collaborated with the ministry of health for almost two years and was permitted to freely distribute humanitarian assistance in the Delta region.
Since that time there’s been an increase in the—in international NGOs’ participation in a wide variety of humanitarian efforts and development and poverty-reduction efforts. Everyone’s here in New York for the next week or two to ratify the sustainable-development goals. There’s been a proliferation of organizations working in Myanmar in the last couple of years.
It’s really important for Track II diplomacy and for midlevel managers to be engaged with each other, both in—within the government institutions but also, really importantly, in the communities and with local leaders, and that’s really where democracy takes place.
How would you like to see NGOs, international NGOS, engaging with the government? And in particular, if you look at the sustainable development goals, is there any—maybe two goals where you said—if we could ask the international community to support Myanmar in the achievement of those, which two would you choose? And I wonder if anything might be in the area of governance or perhaps disaster risk reduction, health or any of the other areas.
LWIN: Yes. Well, the cooperation with the international community—we are engaging with the U.N. agencies and various NGOs in the country, as you have mentioned. So this will be continued in the future as well. So I think many of the government ministries are cooperating with those NGOs in various fields. So I think it will be progress in the future as well, given that the NGOs are emphasizing on this development and humanitarian assistance.
MODERATOR: OK. Let’s take another question at the same table.
Q: (Name and affiliation off mic.)
Mr. Minister, in the West we’ve had the sense that those five decades since General Ne Win’s coup have been a period of ongoing downward deterioration for people in Myanmar economically, socially, and so on. What would Myanmarians, if that’s the right term for the people of the Union of Myanmar—what would people in Myanmar say that with all the backward direction on many indicators, what have been the successes of what—of the military path to socialism? Do they see anything, or is the public convinced that this has been a lost half century? And what benefits, if any, do people see in their day-to-day lives from the modest opening up of the past four to five years? Do they see any benefits there as you head into an election?
LWIN: Yes, in the past—before we took office, before 2011, I think there were successive governments, starting from the military council in 1962, and after that, they—we have established the single party political system, with the political system—we named that Burmese way to socialism, because at the time you—if you look at the international situations, there were during takeover era. So we have—for the time since we regained independence, those leaders who led the independence, who fight the—for the independence, were socialist members. So that’s why, when the military, led by U Ne Win, took office, they have to—they had—they chosen the path to socialism in a single party system. But it proved not to be successful, because of the—if you look at the ’88 uprising, there were riots and turmoil, and that was because of the problems that are facing the country on the economic as well as in the political system also.
But at the time also Myanmar was isolated by the Western community as well. So this has led to the economic—the accessful—unsuccessful in economics, because there were isolation.
And after the ’88, when the—or because of this political turmoil in the country, the military has to intervene again. And then the military work to have a—to change this political system as well as the economic system. So before we took office in 2011, the military government at the time, in 2003, has announced to the international community as well as to the Myanmar people that they have laid down the seven-step road map towards changing the country into a democratic society. So from that 2003 onwards, the military government has taken steps to transform the country into a democratic one. So according to these—in accordance with this seven-step road map, the government—we have this election in 2010, and the new government took office in 2011, according to the seven-step road map. Now we are committed to our political transition towards a democratic society and a multiparty democratic system. So if you look at the—some of the—we look at the participants in this upcoming election, there are more than 90—to be specific, about 91—political parties taking part in this election, and about—more than 6,600 people will be contesting for the seats.
So I think this is the opening up and that this is the—what you call—pragmatic change of political system into another system. Well, this is—we are on the verge of the—opening society. We are on the verge of becoming into a flourishing democracy. But you know that for—if you look back at the American history, you have come a long way, more than 200 years, to be—come to this stage. So we are a very young democracy. We are trying our best to come a—to become a flourishing democracy, but it takes time.
And if you look at the contemporary countries which have changed system in the early 21st century, there were lots of turmoil and riots and bloodsheds.
In our transition we have been taking stable and orderly way toward the first peaceful transitions, towards—to become a flourishing democracy, as the United States or also the other (early ?) democracies around the world.
MODERATOR: We’ll see what happens after November.
OK. Let’s see. Let’s have a question here.
Q: Thank you. Earl Carr, representing Momentum Advisors.
On July 23rd of this year a court in Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese national citizens to life in prison for illegal logging in Myanmar. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a very strong response condemning this decision. What is Myanmar and China doing to deal with the issue of illegal logging in Myanmar?
LWIN: We cannot allow illegal logging in our country. Those people who were apprehended and sentenced were the people who were doing illegal loggings in our country, with the connection with KIA at that area. “KIA” means the Kachin insurgent groups. So they called themselves as a Kachin Independence Army, which were active in that area. So those Chinese people in the border area have some understanding and got some permission from those people to—for the illegal logging in the country. So the—when the government have this information, then the government has taken legal action to those people.
Yes, the Chinese have made a strong statement on that. After they were sentenced, now the (area ?)—they were among the people who were given pardon for the amnesty by the president. And now all the 153 persons were repatriated to China.
MODERATOR: OK, I think we have time for one last question. Let’s see. I think—well, we’ll go here, since we took the mic away from you before. (Chuckles.)
Q: My name is Elizabeth Holtzman. I’m a former member of the United States Congress. I want to thank you very much for taking time to share your views with us.
I want to tell you that I had the pleasure of visiting your country a number of years ago. But I am very concerned about the issue—I know you don’t like the name, but I don’t know any other name to use—about the Rohingya. And the reason I’m concerned about that is because I think that while you tried to answer the questions that were raised, your answers raised more questions, and I think the issue is one that will affect U.S. policy because of the concerns about persecution.
I was involved in the resettlement of the boat people fleeing from the Vietnam many, many years ago, and there were only a very small handful that were involved in economic—a search for economic betterment. They were fleeing persecution, almost all of them, not a hundred percent, but very close. So it’s possible things have changed, but it’s more likely that they’re the same.
But my concerns from your questions here are, if in fact you’re trying to do what’s fair and what’s just, the pope recently said—just yesterday—to look at the—it was this morning—the human face of the refugee, then how do you explain removing the white paper or the piece of paper, the citizenship, and then requiring people to prove something that happened three generations ago? I’m a first generation in my family. I wouldn’t make it in your country. (Chuckles.) Where are people going to get the documentation, and what kind of documentation are you requiring? If people lived in your country for 60 years and have contributed, presumably, to its economic and physical and cultural and spiritual growth, don’t they have a face that can be looked at? And so what is the perception? I think the perception is not good about the actions that have been taken by your country, so I would appreciate your responding to that.
LWIN: Yes, you have mentioned about the boat people from Vietnam. This is—it was quite different from the Vietnamese situation at the time when the Vietnam War broke out in that area. But for the part of the—those people in our country, I have mentioned to you that in May and June we have rescued those people on the boat drifting in our territorial waters, and we have cooperated with the government of Bangladesh in verification process. And then we found out that (80 ?) percent of those people were from Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh government received them back after their repatriation.
And about the people who are in the Rakhine state—anyway, they are in the Rakhine state now, so—but they have been living—some of the people have been living for more than six decades, and I have mentioned that they have the right for the citizenship, to apply for the citizenship, and we are conducting this verification process. And with the cooperation of those people, they have been given some kind of an identity card or a—as you have mentioned, a paper—(chuckles)—but not a white card anymore. But we are giving them, according to our new census and a new verification process, they need to be given a new kind of identity cards for them. Yeah.
MODERATOR: But in the meantime 800,000 people who voted in the last election will not be able to vote in this next election. Is that right?
LWIN: Yes, I—yes, according to the statistic, I think that those holding these cards cannot be eligible to give—to vote in the elections, because that—I don’t know whether the green cards holder in the United States are allowed to give votes in the elections in America also.
MODERATOR: OK. Well, I think on that note—(laughter, applause)—we should probably wrap up. Thank you all very much for coming, and we’ll see you again at the Council.
This is an uncorrected transcript.