RANGOON — Five months after the transfer of power to the new government in April, former Minister of Information (2014-16) U Ye Htut became a senior visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. While in Burma conducting research for a book to be published later this year, he spoke to The Irrawaddy about his past experiences in government and views on the current administration.
What is your book about?
Mainly, it will be about the reforms initiated by former President U Thein Sein over the past five years. It does not boast about the success of those reforms, but discusses the reasons behind them, the difficulties faced and the lessons learned.
What have you realized about the previous government since you began to study outside of the country?
Since I entered an environment in which scholars consider everything impartially, I can think without strings attached. I could not do that before because I was representing the government for which I worked. I am more liberated and my perspective has changed.
The previous government was weak in regard to studying abroad. Since you are now looking in from the outside, what does the government need to improve on?
When I was assigned to the Ministry of Information, I had the chance to speak to visiting scholars. I found that when my superiors made decisions, they based them on personal experience. But foreign scholars presented theories based on international norms. There are huge differences. If people can leave the country, they will get a more balanced view. The previous government had shortfalls because of this gap.
The previous government took actions based on prior experience?
The previous government worked based on its own experience but it failed to follow international norms and procedures because there was a closed-door policy for a long time. It was also partly because of its distrust in people. The international community and the people inside the country were at odds with the government. But policymakers need to be more in touch with international norms.
Now, the opposition party—the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—has a new leadership. Could this be interpreted as real change?
The party made the change with the intention of bringing in new blood but it needs to change its mindset and methods. We will wait and see how much the new people change the old methods.
Both the former and current government worked by basing decisions on previous experience. The current government organized the 21st Century Panglong Conference in the same way meetings were organized under the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, and the previous government. Songs are broadcast, singposts are erected and public rallies are held. The USDP needs to change and think outside of the box.
There were some problems with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) at the Panglong conference. Do you think the conference could lead to peace? What needs to be done?
This first conference was just a gathering of people sharing their thoughts. They were not finding answers. Later, national-level negotiations need to be held. But, if non-signatories of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) are not allowed to join, negotiations will go nowhere.
Stakeholders need to accept that things are different from 1947 (when the first Panglong Conference was held).
We need to oppose racial prejudice at the national level as well as at the state level. For example, Shan nationals have demanded greater power as their influence has increased. I accept that. But there are other ethnicities living in Shan State. When the Shan demand greater power they should also be ready to give that opportunity to smaller ethnic groups in their state.
Currently, some ethnicities attack Burman racial superiority, but they need to assess whether they are also asserting racial superiority in their regions.
Regarding the unresolved crisis in Arakan State, the former government formed a local investigation commission. The committee formed by the new government includes international representatives. What difference do you think the new commission will make?
It needs to be pragmatic. We tried to solve the Arakan issue locally but the commission could not find a solution that appeased all parties, and international recognition was weak.
I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi included Kofi Annan to garner international recognition. But that is a double-edged sword that the government can benefit from if they make use of it.
For that to happen, Arakan nationals need to provide the commission with information. If they do not, they will not get the result that they want.
People concerned with this issue need to know that citizen rights and ethnic rights are different. People who identify as Rohingya cannot currently be granted citizenship. But, if there is a systematic citizenship verification system, we should be ready to accept them as citizens.
The government needs to find out what the self-identifying Rohingya want. Do they want citizenship, freedom of movement, or are they stuck on terminology?
The longer this problem remains unsolved, the more the state and country will be damamged.
How would you compare the previous government with the new government, in its first five months in office?
People have very high expectations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government so there is more pressure now.
In the former administration, no one had trust in us when we took office. People did not expect change so we did not feel much pressure.
Another difference is ministerial performance. Although the new government has articulated its economic policy, it is very broad. Also, the current ministries are not effective in implementing their policies, perhaps because they are hesitant. They are weak in that regard.
Regarding peace, clashes broke out with the Kachin Independence Army just after the former government assumed power. The new government has the NCA in place and the influence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and they are doing better in regards to the peace process.
Did you make any decisions that you regret during your time as information minister?
I knew that media censorship needed to be lifted, even back in 2008. It would have been better if it had happened gradually but when censorship was suddenly abolished in 2012, neither side was ready and problems were unavoidable.
We failed to coordinate sufficiently while an interim press council was formed, so journalist cooperation with the council was weak.
We also could not get people to understand the idea of public service media and as a result MRTV [Myanma Radio and Television] and some newspapers are still state-owned.
This was due to the weakness of our ministry and the fact that I was hesitant at times. If I had been more bold, media relations would be better.