A Conversation with President U Thein Sein of Myanmar
Following is the transcript of an interview with President U Thein Sein
in New York, September 28. He also answered questions before an
audience at the Asia Society on September 27, and the video is
available here. In both conversations, he spoke through a translator.
Bill Keller: Before we get to matters of state, I’d like to ask a few personal questions.
Americans don’t know you very well yet. Can you tell me a bit about your parents,
about your education?
Thein Sein: I came from a very humble background. My parents were ordinary people.
I was born in a small village near Hainggyi Island which is located in the delta area.
My parents were farmers.
BK: I read somewhere that your father was at one time a Buddhist monk. Is that correct?
TS: My father joined the monkhood only after his wife passed away. After his wife died,
my father stayed with me for about ten years. Then he became a monk, and he passed
away as a monk. [An aide later pointed out that it is common among Burmese
Buddhists for widowers to live out their final days as monks.]
BK: Did you go to school in the village?
TS: The village only had a primary school. Then I went to the capital of the region,
and I studied there for one year. My village had no middle school – the closest one was
40 or 50 miles away, so I went there to study for about three years. Then I went back
to the capital and studied for another three years. Then I sat for the entrance exam to
the military academy. I passed, and I studied there for four years. I graduated with a
bachelor of arts degree, and became a second lieutenant.
BK: When did you first get a chance to see the world outside of Myanmar?
TS: I first got a chance to go abroad for the first time when I was a colonel on
the general staff of the War Office. I went to China and Singapore.
BK: How old were you then?
TS: In my mid-40’s.
BK: Burma was under international sanctions for many years. How would you describe
the effects of the sanctions on your country?
TS: I think the sanctions had a tremendous negative effect on ordinary people. Because
of sanctions we did not receive foreign direct investment, and there were very few job
opportunities for ordinary people. Many of our citizens had to find jobs in neighboring
countries. About three million of our citizens are working in Thailand or other countries
in the region. Even though sanctions were meant to undermine the military government,
in fact they hurt ordinary people more.
BK: Did they have some influence on your thinking or the leadership’s thinking about the
need to move away from military rule to a more democratic system?
TS: We planned to undertake democratic reforms from the beginning. It took about two
decades for us to make all necessary preparations. We tried to improve our education system
and we adopted a seven-step program, we drafted a new constitution, we had a referendum
on the constitution, then we held elections.
[Note: Myanmar held free elections in 1990, in which the opposition won 80 percent of the seats.
The military refused to yield power. The new constitution was adopted in 2008. In 2010,
the opposition agreed to take part in elections, although it was only allowed to contest a fraction of the seats.]
Regardless of the sanctions, we were going to undertake reforms. It was not just because of
sanctions that we did all these things.
BK: I heard that explanation yesterday when you answered questions at the Asia Society.
It’s still not clear to me WHY. People have speculated about why the regime decided to change.
Some people said that our experience with the Nargis cyclone convinced you the country had
to reform so that it could take better care of its people. Some say that the Arab Spring was a factor.
TS: The main reason was the wishes of the people. Since the beginning, we knew the people wanted
a democratic system, but we didn’t want to introduce changes abruptly. It would be quite dangerous
to society. The changes in our country were gradual. But we did it because people wanted it.
It was not because of Arab Spring or anything else.
BK: The current constitution contains some provisions that limit your democracy. The commander-in-chief
has the power to take back all authority in an emergency. And 25 percent of the seats in every assembly
are reserved for the military. How long do you think it will be necessary to have those provisions?
TS: The commander-in-chief cannot issue an emergency decree on his own. The commander-in-chief
is appointed by the president. If there is a situation that calls for a state of emergency,
the president and the National Defense and Security Council will make the decision.
So we cannot say that the commander-in-chief can stage a coup and take over the
government at his own will. The second part of your question is the role of the
military in the parliament. The armed forces have played a crucial role in our
politics for many years. So we cannot exclude them in this transition process.
Of course, over time the percentage of the representatives of the armed forces
might decrease. You can see a similar situation in Indonesia. The number of
military representatives decreased over time. A similar thing should happen
in our country as well.
BK: So you think that the guaranteed representation for the military in the
parliament will be phased out over time.
TS: As things change.
BK: And the state of emergency powers? Will that remain?
A presidential advisor: In the constitution the state of emergency is decided by the
president with the agreement of the National Defense and Security Council.
The main actor is the president.
BK: In what sort of circumstances would that power be used?
TS: The state of emergency could be issued just for one region of the country, or the entire
country. The president might consider issuing such an order when the well-being of the
citizens is in danger. And then, in a situation where we needed to restore law and order
the president might order the commander-in-chief to go and restore law and order.
BK: One last question? You and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have expressed respect for each
other during your respective visits to the United States. When she was asked whether
she had ambitions to be president some day, she said that every head of a party aspires to
be the head of state. Can you imagine a President Aung San Suu Kyi?
TS: She’ll have to meet the requirements of the constitution. [Note: she would be
disqualified under the current constitution, because her children have foreign
citizenship.] And after that, it’s up to the public to decide.
Photo : Reuters / Soe Zay Yahtun