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Inteview with Myanmar's President

Aired May 24, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight, the Myanmar miracle, or that is what's hoped for this country of almost 15 million people tucked between Asian powerhouses India and China, a country which just three years ago was being brutally led by one of the world's most repressive military regimes.

For decades, Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was best known for the heroic struggle of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest, separated from her husband and sons by her military jailers.

But she kept up the struggle to reform her beleaguered country and now her vision is becoming reality at a breathtaking pace.

But if she is the icon of democracy, Myanmar calls this man the icon of reform, former general and now President Thein Sein. He's in the United States for meeting with President Obama and it's the first time a Burmese leader has visited the White House since 1966.

And since then, the country has morphed from military junta to fledgling democracy, with political and economic reforms that were unimaginable just three short years ago.

It's still very much a work in progress though, as President Obama acknowledged in November when he became the first-ever U.S. leader to visit Burma.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time.


AMANPOUR: So with Burma charging towards change, economic liberalization, lifting press censorship, representative democracy, major problems still persist. There's endemic poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and an explosion of brutal ethnic violence, specifically the targeting and massacre of the country's Muslim minority by its Buddhist majority.

The group Physicians for Human Rights today accused the government and security forces of standing idly by and called for an independent investigation into the killings.

In a moment, I will ask my exclusive guest, President Thein Sein, about all of this.

But first, CNN correspondent Dan Rivers is also in Myanmar for us right now. He was there back in 2008, reporting on the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which ripped through parts of the country, leaving more than 100,000 Burmese dead or missing. Back then, Myanmar refused all international aid and access to all international reporters.

So Dan and his CNN cameraman were forced to operate in the shadows to cover the story. It was a dangerous assignment. Take a look.


DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have to change hotels every day. Now my reports were on air, I was a marked man.

We're having to sneak in and out of the hotel through the back stairs so that they don't know I'm here because we understand that the authorities are now looking for me specifically.

Well, two guys spoke to me sitting in a car outside our hotel. Looked like they -- sitting, waiting and watching. It's really - it's difficult not to get completely paranoid and ridiculous here because you kind of feel that everyone is potentially military intelligence. And they're all looking for you.


AMANPOUR: Dan Rivers is in Rangoon or Yangon right now.

Dan, thanks. How different is it all these years later?

RIVERS: Well, for us, Christiane, it is immeasurably different. There's no more sneaking around; no more changing hotels every night. We can broadcast here. We have a full permission to be here. In fact, today we just went down to Aung San Suu Kyi's house, at 54 University Avenue, famous address. Before there was checkpoints, barbed wire; you couldn't even stop there.

Now there's nothing there at all. We got out, filmed; no problem at all. When we were filming elsewhere in the country, the army, in fact, came over to us and kept on saying, "Freedom of the press. We can't interrupt you. We want to help you."

So for us, the difference is enormous.

AMANPOUR: But in general, when you talk to the Burmese people, the people of Myanmar, and there are all these changes, there's all this economic change, breakneck pace of trying to bring the country up into the 21st century.

How are they feeling about it?

RIVERS: I think there's obviously massive changes in the cities like this main commercial city, Yangon. We're seeing Western brands coming in now that you never saw before, lots of expensive Western cars on the streets.

So for people, urban people here, yes, it's a huge improvement. The Internet is beginning to open up here. There's all sorts of changes in their daily life in terms of what they can buy and what they have access to.

I think the picture is different outside of the cities and for your average farmer, out in his paddy field in rural Myanmar, I would suspect that most of them would say things haven't changed at all. They still feel like they're not getting their fair share of what could be quite a wealthy country, actually. And they probably feel that the army still controlled way too much of this economy.

I think most analysts would agree the army, although it's going through a lot of the motions of opening up and some of the sanctions have been dropped, they still control huge amounts of commerce and industry here.

AMANPOUR: And one of the really devastating after effects of this democratic reform and all the stuff we've been talking about is this explosion of ethnic and minority community violence.

You've just been out to central Myanmar, where there has been a massacre a few months ago of Muslims there.

What have you seen? And what are the authorities going to do about it to protect these people's rights?

RIVERS: It was really shocking, Christiane, the level of destruction in this town called Meiktila. It was like an earthquake. I mean, I've seen a lot of earthquake scenes and so have you. It was just like an earthquake, building after building after building totally razed to the ground, burnt out and what looked like they'd been bulldozed.

We saw one religious school, a madrassa, where it had been set on fire, teenaged students burnt inside, others beaten to death outside by the mob. There's plenty of amateur video around on YouTube showing the violence.

It really is quite shocking and worrying as well, because this has spread from the far west of Myanmar, where the Rohingya minority have been clashing with Buddhist nationalists. Now this has spread to other Muslim minority communities. And they're all in camps. They have fled. It's like ethnic cleansing in a way, the beginnings of it.

And they -- I think the government really need to get a grip on this and somehow try to reassure these communities that it's safe to go back and that they will step in. One of the criticisms is that they took too long to act.

AMANPOUR: Dan Rivers, thanks so much for that update from Yangon.

RIVERS: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: So I asked President Thein Sein about this violence, about human rights in general, as well as the amazing success that he's had in implementing reform so far and about the new great game (ph) as President Obama famously pivots to Asia, Myanmar is at the center of a tussle for influence, between the United States and China.


AMANPOUR: Mr. President, welcome to the program. Thank you for being here.

THEIN SEIN, PRESIDENT OF MYANMAR (through translator): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you and with CNN.

AMANPOUR: You must be amazed at the speed with which relations with the United States are improving. I mean, it wasn't many years ago that you were enemy number one for the United States. This is incredible.

SEIN: I have to agree. I myself am amazed at the speed of the improvement of our bilateral relations. But there are no permanent friends or permanent foes in international relations.

AMANPOUR: Yes, that's a famous saying.

What is it that you hope to get out of this relationship? What is it you hope to get out of your visit with President Obama?

SEIN: First of all, I hope that our bilateral relations between our two countries will improve because of this visit.

And secondly, I think I'll be able to remove some of the obstacles and challenges that we now have when it comes to economic development.

AMANPOUR: What do you think the United States wants from you? We have heard that it's very important for the United States and maybe for Myanmar/Burma as well that you develop a stronger relationship with America than with China?

Is there a competition for Myanmar between the United States and China?

SEIN: I must say there's no competition between China and the United States. Our foreign policy is we maintain friendly relations with all countries around the world, and will continue to maintain our friendly relations with China; and at the same time, we'll try to maintain and improve our relations with the United States.

AMANPOUR: Well, certainly, China is quite worried because, even today, I'm reading that they are conducting an unprecedented public relations operation inside Myanmar to convince the people of Myanmar that all their investments -- in some cases their land grabs in order to pursue their own economic interests -- should be accepted by the people of Myanmar.

Do the people of Myanmar trust China?

SEIN: We share a long, common border of nearly 2,000 kilometers with China. And we've been maintaining friendly relations with China since time immemorial. For as you know, during the two decades when there were various obstacles in our relationship with other countries, China was one of the friendly neighbors. And we were able to maintain friendly relations with China.

I should say that China continues to be our friendly neighbor.

AMANPOUR: Let me go back to these incredible changes that are happening in your country.

Will you agree and accept that, for many, many years -- decades -- Myanmar was one of the most hated regimes? It was like North Korea for the West, ruthless. It was brutal, cruel.

And now it's changed. And I'm trying to figure out why, how, what was the turning point?

SEIN: As you know, now in Myanmar, we have a democratically elected constitutional government as well as the elected members of parliament. So it's the duty of the government to fulfill the will and the desire of the people. The reforms that we are instituting are the will of the majority of the people.

AMANPOUR: I'm sure you're right; the reforms are the will of the people.

But for many, many years, the government, the junta did not respond to that will of the people.

So what changed you?

SEIN: As one of the citizens of Myanmar myself, I am trying my best to fulfill the will and the desire of the people.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Aung San Suu Kyi.

What is it like, working with her? What was it like when you first met her?

SEIN: As you know, for nearly two decades Aung San Suu Kyi was in opposition to the government. But when I met with her, we tried to reach some common ground for the interest of the people and the country. So there is some common ground between us. At the same time, we have different views on some issues.

But we were able to agree that we will leave those issues for later and solve our differences through negotiations.

AMANPOUR: I interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi several months ago when you were all here at the United Nations. This is what she told me.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI, BURMESE ACTIVIST: I've never thought that what they did to me was personal anyway. It is politics. I like a lot of the generals. I'm rather inclined to liking people. I always got on with people in the army. You mustn't forget that my father was the founder of the Burmese army.

And this is why I have a soft spot for them even though I don't like what they do. That's different from not liking them.


AMANPOUR: When she told me she had a soft spot for you and the generals who had kept her in prison for so many years, I was stunned.

Were you surprised that she likes the military?

SEIN: For me, I am not surprised by her feelings towards our military because Aung San Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, was our national hero who fought for our independence.

He's also the founder of our military. So I believe that she has a special place in her heart for the military.

AMANPOUR: She obviously respects what you've done.

Do you respect her?

SEIN: I should say that she has confidence in me and respect for me. Likewise, I have reciprocal feelings for her.


AMANPOUR: And when we come back, I asked President Thein Sein about human rights, political prisoners and the explosion of violence against Muslims.

But before we take a break, we mentioned earlier, it's been almost half a century since a U.S. president welcomed a Burmese head of state. Back in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson greeted General Ne Win with a 21-gun salute at the White House, and just like today, China loomed large.

Back then the Vietnam War was escalating and both the U.S. and Communist China were lining up their dominoes. That was a popular phrase at the time. And Burma was a crucial piece in the global board game.

Today, the U.S. and China are locked in a different kind of rivalry, mostly economic and influential. And once again, Burma or Myanmar finds itself a key player, tussled over by both these great powers.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

President Obama is welcoming President Thein Sein. While so much has improved under his leadership, an explosion of violence against the minority Muslim population has shocked the world.

This video shows a religious school set ablaze by a nationalist Buddhist mob in March. Dozens of teenagers reportedly were burned to death and a mob attacking young people with clubs. I asked Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, how he would end this horrific violence and when he would release all remaining political prisoners.


AMANPOUR: There has been, over the last -- more than a year -- an explosion of communal violence, of Muslims, Rohingyas and others being killed. Hundreds of people have been killed; thousands of homes have been destroyed. And there are maybe 12 or more thousand people in refugee camps now.

The government is criticized for not doing enough to stop this.

Is that a fair criticism? And should you be doing more to stop this?

SEIN: According to our government, we don't have a policy of discriminating based on religion or race. This communal violence started because of a criminal act and this led to the communal violence.

We're doing our utmost to contain the violence while ensuring the rule of law.

Because of our efforts, peace and stability have been restored in this part of the country. We are also trying our best to provide necessary humanitarian assistance for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the people in that area.

AMANPOUR: But you yourself, I read, you've said that the police had not done enough to stem, to stop this violence.

SEIN: I have found that our police force didn't have the experience to handle these types of incidents. And they didn't have sufficient equipment to handle these types of incidents.

Another thing is that there is not a sufficient police force in that region. There were some deficiencies in the police force at that time, and that's what I said.

AMANPOUR: President Obama says there's no excuse for violence against innocents. I'm sure this will be part of your discussions with him.

Do you accept that these Muslims have a right to be in Myanmar, in Burma, and should have their rights and their livelihoods protected and safeguarded?

SEIN: You are correct that all the citizens in our country must be able to enjoy their fundamental rights. At the same time, we must also safeguard their rights and the rights in accordance with our law.

AMANPOUR: Just ahead of this trip, you released another 20 political prisoners. And you've released hundreds since you've been president.

There are still 160 or so more left -- again, this is bound to come up with your conversation with President Obama. And it's one of the reasons why some sanctions U.S. are still on Myanmar.

Will you release all the remaining political prisoners?

SEIN: The concept of releasing political prisoners in our country is carried out because we want to ensure that the political process is inclusive, where all people of Myanmar can participate in the political process.

Therefore, that is the main reason we are releasing political prisoners.

We also have formed a committee for scrutinizing the remaining political prisoners. But some of the prisoners that we still detain are there because they've committed crimes such as murder or rape. But they will be released, based on the recommendations of this committee.

AMANPOUR: But you do accept that there still remain political prisoners who need to be freed?

SEIN: With regard to political prisoners, there has been a discrepancy in the list of prisoners. But as I said earlier, the committee for scrutinizing the remaining prisoners has been thoroughly studying the cases.

If they are eligible, they will be released.

AMANPOUR: All of the reforms that you're doing, all of the economic reforms that you're doing, still, the vast majority of the Burmese people, the people of Myanmar live in poverty, live on less than $1 a day. Most of the people who are benefiting are the urban classes.

How big a challenge is that to get all your country people to be able to have a better life?

SEIN: You are correct. The people of Myanmar have not enjoyed equally in the economic development of our country. At present, the people of Myanmar have very huge job opportunities.

Therefore, our government is trying to attract foreign investment into our country. Then we will be able to create job opportunities for the people of Myanmar, to generate income and raise the living standard and raise them out of poverty.

AMANPOUR: Everybody says corruption is a major problem in Myanmar. They say you are not corrupt, but many others are.

Do you agree, that it is a very big problem?

SEIN: We have to estimate that Myanmar, like other countries, has her corruption problems, but our government is committed to having a clean, good government. So we are trying our best to reduce the corruption and eventually eradicate this problem of the corruption in our country.

To eradicate corruption, we are trying three plans. The first is that we are trying economic development for the prosperity of the people in Myanmar.

Secondly, we are taking action against those corrupt officials.

Thirdly, we are trying to educate the people to be free from corruption.

AMANPOUR: One last question, the human rights special rapporteur back in 1998 said that when you were a military commander of the eastern state, there were orders to confiscate about 13 plots of land and rice fields to increase the amount of land for the military, for the military base.

What do you say about that?

SEIN: I was serving to the commander of the eastern command in 1996. But during my time serving as the commander, there was never a problem of confiscating land. I have never taken land against the will of the people. There was no major issue of land grabbing in that area while I was serving as the commander.

Some of the reports were fabricated. So I have to say that there were no major problems. Even today, there is no major problem of land grabbing in the eastern part of the country.

AMANPOUR: So you reject that.

Do you finally feel relief, taking off the military uniform and putting on the civilian suit of a new democrat?

SEIN: I served in the military for my country. Now I am serving as a civilian for my country. But you cannot compare that to when I was serving as the president. As president, I have more duties in the interests of our country. It is a heavy duty and a heavy responsibility to serve the people and the country.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, thank you very much.

SEIN: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: A work in progress. And we will be back with a final thought about Myanmar after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've seen remarkable changes taking place in Myanmar. But imagine a world before those reforms took root, when dissent was silent and political prisoners were tortured and killed.

Five years ago, on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, I saw first- hand what was then the face of Burma's brutal military regime, especially after it cracked down on the Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Among the many Buddhist monuments, I found a memorial to torture run by Burmese political activist Bo Kyi. He showed me what the regime was capable of.

BO KYI, ASSOCIATION FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS: This is intentionally used for punishment. So for instance, if someone is caught --


AMANPOUR: Were you imprisoned?

KYI: Yes, I myself spent in prison for seven years and three months. I used to wear this for at least two times.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Bo Kyi has been documenting those who were killed or arrested.

Do you know how many people were killed?

KYI: We could find only two (ph) at least. So maybe, we believe, over 100 might be killed during the crackdown.


AMANPOUR: Nothing will bring back the dead and all political prisoners need to be freed. And so today, Bo Kyi and his fellow activists are still at work, documenting and bearing witness.

And yet as we leave you with these postcards from Burma, what is happening there today was unimaginable those five years ago.

That's it for tonight's program. You can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.