Win Aung: "Sincerity is needed on their side"

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TIME: Was this a fruitful trip from Myanmar's point of view?

Win Aung: Mr. De Soto had proposed a visit last year. Then we met in New York after the 1998 General Assembly, before I came back here to take the job [as foreign minister], and we discussed it. However, later he had to postpone his visit because of some difficulties. He would like to have a World Bank official accompany him, but in some quarters there were some problems. TIME: Was this a fruitful trip from Myanmar's point of view? Win Aung: Mr. De Soto had proposed a visit last year. Then we met in New York after the 1998 General Assembly, before I came back here to take the job [as foreign minister], and we discussed it. However, later he had to postpone his visit because of some difficulties. He would like to have a World Bank official accompany him, but in some quarters there were some problems.

TIME: Are you referring to the U.S. objections to a World Bank official going along?

Win Aung: I am a diplomat, so I will not be specific. Let's just say "in some quarters." Later, the trip was again postponed because of heavy schedules here. So finally we agreed and set a date and he came here last week, accompanied by Igiz Nabi, a World Bank official, who is a Pakistani. Of course we discussed many matters, and we explained the situation in our country. Our ultimate aim is to build a democratic society, and we told them what we are doing and what direction we are moving in.

Let me say that they were not specific about how much the World Bank is going to loan us, or the size of any grants or aid. This was not discussed. No specifics were discussed. There was no mention of any specific amount of money which will be [used to assist] us, and of course we did not ask. We did not have any specific requests on how much we wanted to have. They came with an assessment of our economy, which they gave us, and an assessment of our economic situation and the programs of development we are undertaking.

TIME: Can you characterize that assessment and the general tone of the visit?

Win Aung: We had an exchange of views. Mr. De Soto was visiting our country as the special representative of the [U.N.] Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and he has a mandate from the General Assembly to use his good offices to assist in the Myanmar government's efforts of national reconciliation. That is the lovely wording of the General Assembly resolution. So according to that mandate, the Secretary-General will assist our government in our efforts of national reconciliation.

That's why every year after the resolution, he comes to our country. Mr. De Soto met with many officials and also some of our national races and, of course, the NLD [National League for Democracy]. We don't want to call them the opposition. We are not contesting for power now like in Indonesia right now. We never say we are a normal government. We are a caretaker government, so the meaning of the word "opposition" is perhaps different here than in other countries.

One point I am glad to make is that sometimes people believe that if you don't have a dark background, the white will then be somewhat blurred. But people who understand the white and contrasts know there can be many, many things that may fall in between. The situation is not one where atrocities occur in our country; there are no sounds of guns any more and no resemblance to ethnic cleansing, and no people dying from the effects of war. When we say our people enjoy peace, it means the people are out of the danger in which they have had to live--living in fear for their lives--in many past years. Even in my small hometown Dawei, a town southeast of Yangon. When we were young we couldn't even go outside town because of the situation. Now you can go out even at night. We hope this will prevail.

In the previous 20 years the situation was not the same. We had a lot of black or brown areas that were not under the control of the government, and there were dangers of ambush and attack. But no more. Now these areas are white areas: clear areas where you can travel even at nighttime without fear. Sometimes people forget that we have just come out of that situation. It is not that we have been living under good times and suddenly we are living under bad times. It is that we have been living under bad times for so long, and suddenly we are living under good times.

Our program of democracy is secondary. Our fundamental program is national unity. Given the fact that we have so many diverse races living together, if we are not united, there will be no chance of survival. A new government can emerge, but unless we have solved our problems of national unity, it will not last long.

Why is this so important to us? Because we live in a very strategic geographical area. If we were in the middle of an ocean it might have been different. We might not have had so many diverse national races. The people came to have diverse dialects because they could not communicate so well from one mountain to another. So different dialects and different clans emerged. Our country is so mountainous and sometimes inaccessible. It's difficult to build roads from east to west. So we have not had much communication between the national races, and that creates a problem.

But the main reason unity was so important is that we have been so divided in the past. Our history under British colonial rule was also very much "divide and rule." If I were a colonial master, I might do the same thing, because the main people living in the Irrawaddy valleys, who were called Myanmars, were rebellious, unruly people. When Britain annexed our country to its empire, it realized these people were the hardest to govern, because of our independence, which we are still very proud of. We are very independent people and very different from others, perhaps because of our high mountain ranges which make our country very difficult to invade. The British came from the sea.

Our people were very inventive people. You can trace them back to the Central Asian area. We were living in the area between Tibet and the Gobi Desert, and being desert dwellers we were always loners. We have to be. And very inventive, because we have to do things for ourselves. We cannot rely on other people. Many foreigners are surprised that our national characteristics are sometimes very difficult to understand. Why are our people so independent? And we're also very individualistic. Then the outlying Frontier States founded armies that were used against the Burma people. And when the British were about to leave here after the Second World War, they gave the impression to these people who had been loyal to the British Empire that they could have independence for their separate areas. That was the beginning of all our trouble.

Then in 1947 our national political leaders met in Panlong in Shan State and postponed the problem for 10 years--it agreed to join the union, but they could vote in 10 years to secede. Look at our history in that 10-year time. We had a military government since 1958 because the civilian governments could not govern any more. Then after that, there were movements to secede from the union, and then in 1962 the military took over to save the union from falling apart.

From 1948 to 1958 a lot of things happened in our region. For instance, the Korean War and Dienbienphu, South and North Vietnam, and the Chinese and Indian conflict and Kashmir, and the emergence of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Then the withdrawal of China's Nationalist forces to our territory. We have had a lot of problems both internal and external. So we realized that if we fell into pieces, as prescribed in the constitution, we would have difficulty surviving. It would be very difficult to survive if we are splintered.

That's why it's very important that we have to have a new constitution, not the 1947 constitution. If we had to go along with the old constitution, there could emerge at least 30 countries--more even than in the Balkans. Because, for example, not only Kachins live in the Kachin state. Shans and Was and even Myanmars live there. And in the Shan states, for instance, in the Wa and Kokang areas near Muse [on the Burma-Chinese border], the people are more or less Chinese-language speakers. They wanted their homeland, their own state.

When I was young there were a lot of armies in the Shan states. We called them multicolored insurgencies, incomparable to any country in the world. If we counted all the armies and forces fighting against the government, we could break all the records in the world. Why were these people fighting against the government? Because each wanted its own homeland. Now what we are trying to emphasize to them is that if we have separate homelands, none of us will survive. Let us stick together in this world where our neighbors are extremely big. We share a 1,000-km-long border with India and a 2,400-km-long border with China. And these two giants are living beside us. If we are splintered into pieces, how can we create a stable region? The small states will not be stable, and they could be easily manipulated from the outside. Then all these states will be fighting one another for natural resources and water.

That's why what we are trying to do now is talk to all the people and make peace with everyone and build up confidence with everyone. Right now we are in a confidence-building period. We must explain to all those forces that have reached ceasefire agreements with the government that we must share our administrative powers with the regions. Only if they accept that--only if they have trust in the government--can we move to further stages of the national reconciliation.

The bond of friendship is very important. First we need to have contact. Now we have agreed to that contact. But only after we have met three or four times and have reached an understanding with each other, only then can friendship be bonded. For a nation like us, we need to have an everlasting peace that will bind us together. That is our No. 1 priority. Any government can emerge in our country, but first we must have solved our problems of national unity. We need to erase doubts in their minds about whether they have been unfairly treated. We have to prove that they were not unfairly treated or neglected. To do that we must go in there and assist them, work and live together with them, and give them a sense of belonging to the union.

That's why our government has formed a new ministry that deals with developing areas of our national minorities. Otherwise, these people will always feel they are being neglected, and their only remedy will be for them to try and liberate themselves. So we are trying to assist them and develop their resources. We must go in there with sincerity and mutual respect. We cannot look down on these people. Nor do they need to look up to other people. I myself am a member of the Wei minority, a group of about 600,000 people in the South.

TIME: Were you successful in making your case to DeSoto?

Win Aung: We met again with him in a wrap-up session on Monday, October 18, and he told me, "The more time I spend here the more I understand how complex the situation is." He now admits there are many complex situations in our country. Some people thought the situation was simple and all you had to do was turn the coin. But I said if it were that simple, we'd be the happiest people.

People from the outside do not understand that. The composition of our ethnic population and also the difficulties presented by our geographical terrain make communication and development difficult. That is why we are building so many roads now, so that we can communicate better. Take the road to Muse, for example. We did not have the money for a four- or-six-lane highway, so we decided let us have a thin stretch of just one or two lanes. Later if we have more money, we can expand it.

We have built thousands of bridges. During 400 years under the British, only one bridge was built across the Irrawaddy. All our successive governments--led by U Nu and Ne Win--did not build any more. We have added another five, and we are planning another three, so there will be nine altogether. It is ironic that when we are trying to build and promote national unity, we have received not a cent from either the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. At the same time we have been accused of having only a single source for our military hardware and spending so much on that hardware. But if we were buying so much military hardware, how could we build so many dams and bridges--103 with another 23 under construction.

We can travel to Thailand now without using ferries. What is now a two-hour trip by road used to take 22 hours by boat. Where is that money coming from? We have saved this money. We export whatever we can and use the money earned. We make our own cement. Steel components have to be imported from abroad. But we have managed this. Whatever money we have gotten [from outside sources] has not been wasted.

The opposition always says all the money went into the pockets of the generals and the people suffered. But look at me. Look at my limousine. It's just an Audi built in China. We save our money. Money for the Buddhas is donated by the people, and the expanding skyline is the result of private-sector efforts. What the government is trying to do is raise the standard of education and health care and improve the ports and roads. This is the groundwork. The beneficiary will be the next government, which will emerge from the new constitution. Why are we doing this? As a military government we are disciplined and united, so we can build now. We are not so sure that will be the case later on, because political parties will emerge, and they will have to listen to their constituents.

TIME: Do you understand that there is great impatience at the length of time you're taking to turn over the power to another government?

Win Aung: The U.N. came here because of the [human rights] resolution. That's why the De Soto mission was here, and of course it has a mandate, and it would like to see things improved. We did not pretend that we have achieved a democracy and everything is perfect. We did not say that. But what we are trying to do is solve the problems in a human way, and as much as possible in a humanitarian way.

The only thing is respect for the law, and that's why the NLD releases a lot of statements every day that are always critical. People think no one can criticize the government here or the government will put them in prison. But that is not so. I said we are solving the problem honestly. Only when they cross the line of the law and only when there was danger of eruption into uncontrolled outbursts which can drag the country down into anarchy, only then did the government have to take those actions.

Another thing I said to [De Soto's group], which they did not know, is that nobody can arrest or detain anyone for more than 24 hours without a warrant. There is a law, and we are very much adhering to that law. If the security people want to [detain someone] they must go to court and obtain a warrant. That is the rule of law.

Another thing I told them is that the grassroots and village levels are the most important levels of government. District levels are more supervisory, but the actual implementers and administrators are the township and village levels. At the township level there are no longer any military people in the government administrative system. There are no more captains and majors there. Now only civil service people chair the committees. They were surprised to learn this. These are new facts.

TIME: What led the government to invite the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to return to Burma to inspect the prisons?

Win Aung: They [the ICRC] like to go anywhere, and we collaborate with them. The minister of home affairs is responsible for that, because the prison department is under his ministry. I just came back [to Burma] last year after so many years abroad. What I see now in prison is that prisoners have blankets and mosquito nets. Those things were not allowed under the British because of the possibility of suicides. I was pleasantly surprised. I am also a human being. I would like to see other human beings enjoy justice. I asked Secretary One, "Why did you allow those things, which are not allowed under the rules?" And he replied, "These prisoners are people. We can change the rules."

The ICRC would like to see prisoners have their medical needs and exercise needs satisfied, and the ICRC is helping us with that. When the ICRC recommends something, we don't just push it aside. Our government listens carefully. What can be amended is amended.

TIME: The opposition says the key test will be whether or not the government will allow repeat visits to the same jails and the same prisoners.

Win Aung: We have not decided about that. But I would say, "Why not?" The impression I got from many people and from Home Ministry reports is that there are many things going on. My own reaction is why not? We don't have anything to hide.

TIME: Allegations have been made that before the government granted access to the ICRC, many prisoners were moved from the jails the ICRC would be authorized to visit to other, unauthorized jails.

Win Aung: We allow them to visit wherever they like, and we show them the place where the guests were allowed to stay--whether or not they are really guests. [He is referring to the elected NLD parliamentarians who were detained in military guesthouses, following the NLD's creation of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament, which the regime regards as a "parallel government."] These people are permitted to go home on weekends.

If they [the NLD] convene a parallel government or announce the formation of this or that, they can create a lot of problems for us. We just wanted to deter such a situation. There is no need to put them in prison. The reality is that we have had to use a lot of money entertaining these people. If some are alcohol drinkers, we even supply them with alcohol. But our guest population is decreasing.

TIME: The outside world has not focused so much on the ethnic minority problem as the problem of political pluralism, and therefore on the stalemate between the government and the opposition. Will the U.N. visit help foster dialogue between these two?

Win Aung: I think their mission wants to know how our national constitutional convention is moving. I explained to them the situation we are facing in our constitution-writing process. The National Convention Convening Commission is meeting twice a week, and it has some difficulties right now. The form of the future government has been accepted. They have reached consensus. There will be state governments and a union government, like in America or the Federal Republic of Germany.

Another problem we have solved is the problem of the autonomous regions, which will be called self-administered areas (SAAs). These areas--Was and Kokangs and others are entitled to have self-administered areas--will have their own parliaments also. Right now the difficult thing is that there are interest groups. The states would like to have their legislative and administrative powers defined. Maybe they would like more power and the union may like them to have less. The delegates cannot reach a consensus on how to share power between the states and the federal government. There were expert groups working on the issues, and sometimes they discussed one paragraph all day, yet they could not finish. This is to decide the fate of the country--the union--which will last thousands of years, let us hope, not just two or three years and then fall apart. That is why it is so important, and we are giving them time to reach consensus.

We did not want to rush them, but of course we all hoped it could move faster. For one thing, the 17 armed groups who have made ceasefires with the government are still holding their arms. Only after the constitution has been accepted and perhaps a referendum held will these forces be abolished or absorbed. So there is a danger any time that things could break up. We are like someone holding a grenade with the pin pulled out. We are trying to put the pin back in so that if the grenade drops, it will not explode.

TIME: But then critics raise the question of how you can draft a new constitution without the participation of the most popular political party in the country, the NLD, which walked out of the convention in protest. How do you answer that question? Are you making any effort to get the NLD back into that process? Doing that would take dialogue with the NLD, and therefore all such issues fall within the mandate of Mr. De Soto's discussions.

Win Aung: In my interview with Mr. De Soto, I told him sincerity is needed on their side. You know [Aung San Suu Kyi's] character. She confronts, denounces, attacks and tries to exert pressure on the government. This [strategy] has no regard for the other side. If she wants real dialogue, she needs to create an atmosphere in which it can take place. Some people tell us, "You are stronger so you should hold out the olive branch first," but internationally she is strong.

The people are the silent majority. All 48 million of them. If the government is not doing anything for the people and the people are really outraged, then the country would not be stable, but now the people understand that there is no alternative to what the government is trying to do. The people are giving us the time to cure the ills of the past and to create a new path for the future. I am a democratic person myself. I would like my children and myself to live under a real democratic situation, and the same sentiment is also held by Senior General Than Shwe and other people in the government. Perhaps you are surprised that the military says, "We don't want to have military rule forever."

TIME: They may be sincere in what they are saying, but years have gone by and still they are in power, so the world is becoming impatient for change.

Win Aung: But there is no alternative right now because of the complex situation. If the military were not here, let me assure you that our country would collapse tomorrow. You can see what's happening in Indonesia. Everyone is [looking to] General Wiranto. Why? Because only the army can guarantee non-disintegration of Indonesia into pieces.

TIME: Is there any progress toward dialogue as a result of the U.N. mission?

Win Aung: They went back understanding our situation better. I don't want to prejudge the substance of Mr. De Soto's report. I will say that all the leaders, after I explained what we are trying to do, ended our conversation with one phrase: "Mr. Minister, I appreciate what you are explaining to me, and I wish you success in reaching your goal successfully." This is because we explained to them, "We are not trying to build a communist state or a dictator state or to have one-party rule. We are trying to have the emergence of a real, workable, disciplined multiparty system as in your countries. But let us solve the problems first. We are trying to solve the problems and at the same time build." I explained to them, "We are like builders, carpenters and plumbers, building a house, not for our enjoyment only but for everyone--who are the rightful owners of the house--to enjoy. And the people themselves will choose who will finish building the house.

TIME: What is your hope for the conclusions De Soto's report will draw?

Win Aung: Better understanding of our real situation, which might not be the same as what the media has portrayed.

TIME: Did you get any hints of what the other side said to De Soto?

Win Aung: We know that the NLD had not a word of praise for us. [Laughs]

TIME: So you're not aware of any change on their part?

Win Aung: No, not yet.

TIME: But it takes two to have a dialogue. So are you strong enough to reach out to them, even if they are still calling you names?

Win Aung: You know, time will tell. Right now the atmosphere is a little misty.

TIME: But it's the end of the rainy season. Do you see clarity on the horizon?

Win Aung: Yes.