"Win Aung: Sincerity is needed on their side"

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Was this a fruitful trip from Myanmar's point of view?
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.
Behind the drama at Myanmar's embassy (10/15/99)

Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight (10/08/99)

Who are the most powerful people in Asia?
Are you referring to the U.S. objections to a World Bank official going along?
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.

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

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