News / Asia

    VOA Exclusive: Interview With Myanmar President Thein Sein

    VOA's Than Lwin Htun interviews Myanmar President Thein Sein, Nov. 20, 2014.
    VOA's Than Lwin Htun interviews Myanmar President Thein Sein, Nov. 20, 2014.
    VOA News

    In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Burmese Service, Myanmar President Thein Sein called allegations that minority Muslim Rohingya are fleeing alleged torture in Rakhine state "a media fabrication."

    "International concern on this issue" is overblown, Thein Sein told VOA Burmese Service Chief Than Lwin Htun Thursday at the presidential residence in the capital, Naypyitaw.

    "It is just a media story that boat people are fleeing torture," he said.

    "Actually, there are more people willing to live here because it is spacious, [with] many places to live in and work. Some people are writing negative things with malice. International organizations are also helping them [as] well."

    The comments are striking, given that most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine, on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist country.

    Almost 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced in internment camps after deadly clashes with local Buddhists in 2012. More than 100,000 have fled Myanmar by boat for Malaysia and Thailand. Thousands more have fled overland.

    Rohingya tightly controlled

    Lacking food and adequate and health care, members of the minority group are heavily restricted in almost every facet of daily life, including education and marriage.

    In September, Myanmar confirmed to the United Nations it is finalizing a plan that will offer minority Rohingya Muslims citizenship if they change their ethnicity to suggest Bangladeshi origin, a term most reject because it implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in the area for generations.

    On a recent visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, U.S. President Barack Obama specifically mentioned the tensions and humanitarian situation in Rakhine.

    Ethnic tensions with other minority groups also continue in Myanmar.

    Regarding the Myanmar army’s shelling earlier this week of a minority Kachin military academy that killed more than 20 cadets, Thein Sein appeared to implicitly implicate the rebels.

    "Skirmishes are continuing to this day, but we have ordered our troops not to attack their camps," he said. "Still, everyone has the right to defend his life. So, other than [in cases of] self-defense, our troops will not attack." 

    Clashes persist

    Political issues in Myanmar are just as controversial as the various ethnic conflicts raging in the still-fractured nation.

    Critics of the government say the country is sliding back to junta-era restrictions after a timid reformist start.

    Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) wants to change the constitutional prohibition on anyone becoming president whose spouse or children are foreign nationals.

    Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.

    "Amending the constitution is firstly parliament’s responsibility, and secondly that of the people," Thein Sein said. "The government cannot dictate [for them] to do this or do that, nor can the military."

    But the army retains one-quarter of the legislative seats, allowing it to block constitutional changes. Some lawmakers want to amend the constitution to remove this veto power.

    Related report: "Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change"

    Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
    November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
    Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.

    Reform talks promised

    Unprecedented talks late last month among 14 of Myanmar’s political rivals and powerful military leaders have led to commitments to discuss political reforms and peace talks.

    Suu Kyi reportedly held discussions with Myanmar’s armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for the first time at that meeting.

    Many opposition figures criticized the talks as avoiding meaningful dialogue. Suu Kyi later demanded four-party talks with the president, General Hlaing, the speaker of the house and herself.

    “Discussion is the right way [to find a political solution], but only among the four of us is not inclusive enough,” Thein Sein told VOA.

    “That’s why we expanded the number pf participants," he said. "So last month, myself and two vice presidents represented the government, both speaker and the chair of upper house attended and leaders of five political parties representing 40 parties. The chief and vice chief of defense also attended."

    Responding to critics who say political changes have stalled in Myanmar, the president countered that the country is now in what he called "the third wave of reform."

    Myanmar won wide sanctions relief from Obama after its sudden shift from a half-century of military rule, but there's little certainty about the country's future. Questions remain whether the U.S. offered too many overtures to the long-isolated country too soon.

    Myanmar was under absolute military control from 1962 until 2010. Thein Sein, a retired army general, has been president since 2011, following a four-year stint as prime minister.

    He told VOA he has not decided whether to run for a second term in presidential elections scheduled for 2015.

    Regardless of who is in office, Thein Sein added, the priority should be the country’s stability and people’s livelihood, with a focus on providing basic services for the poor.

    VOA correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Anonymous
    November 22, 2014 11:44 AM
    look at him wearing , the pants, the shoes ,and how is sitting . is he a leader of Myanmar?

    by: BTF USA from: USA
    November 21, 2014 6:59 PM
    Reading the human rights reports with their documentation and speaking to some leaders from Burma, it is clear that the president of Burma is lying.

    Most Burmese know that the military dictators remain in charge and have just rebranded themselves to attract investment. This problem is not a creation of Western powers. This is a real humanitarian crisis. These leaders can try to fool people with their nationalism, with their friends among extremist monks and with business cronies. A healthy society includes and does not exclude. It is shameful for all Burmese that minority groups are mistreated so cruelly. It is shameful that international business groups ignore mass persecution in order to make money.

    by: Uber Junk from: japan
    November 20, 2014 11:08 PM
    Why are they talking about Rohingers?
    In Response

    by: Xaaji Dhagax from: Somalia
    November 22, 2014 12:49 AM
    It's human right thing, got it, Uber?
    In Response

    by: 1stmohican from: USA
    November 21, 2014 10:48 AM
    Is the western powers trying to destabilize Myanmar using the Bengali muslims (so called Rohingya) terrorists as a proxy? Is the ultimate aim of the “look east” policy is to turn Myanmar to an Islamic state and thus encircle China with an adversary from its southern frontier? The Times of India (Nov 19th) exposed the link between Islamic Rohingya terrorists and ISIS. Numerous previous reports have been published linking Islamic Rohingya terrorists with Al Qaeda and Taliban and other terror outfits in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Al Qaeda and Taliban. Read the details by searching “ Islamic Rohingya Terrorists Al Qaeda Taliban in Myanmar”. Similar to the ISIS. the Islamic terrorists of Myanmar themselves have boldly published stories and photos of their exploits (killing and maiming innocent civilians and priests) in a Turkish media as their recruiting tool.

    It has been known by all in the region that these “Muslim boat people” are not from Myanmar but from Bangladesh, and once at sea pretending to be from Myanmar to garner international sympathy. They are fleeing Bangladesh due overpopulation, poverty and loss of land due to climate change and coercion by the Islamists. Poverty in Bangladesh is exacerbated because most young men coming out of madrassas learned only the Islamic dogma and ill equip for work and women who typically are being employed in garment factories or agriculture are being harassed due to increased jihadist activities that forbids women to work outside of home. Thousands of illegal human traffickers have been caught by Bangladesh security forces trying to smuggle Bangladeshis by boat to Malaysia. One of the recent reports from Bangladesh media was published by Dhaka Tribune on Nov 18, 2014.

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