Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has faced a number of crises and setbacks since taking power in March 2016. Many people inside and outside the country had high expectations for the pro-democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after it won national elections by a landslide in November 2015, believing that the country’s first fully civilian government in a half-century would achieve further social, political, and economic reform. But ongoing hostilities between the national military and ethnic armed groups, a slow-moving peace process, a crackdown on the media, and the military’s brutal suppression of Rohingya Muslims during “counteroffensives” in northern Rakhine state have drawn condemnation from the international community and tarnished the once stellar reputation of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pressure continues to mount with the release of a report by an independent United Nations team of investigators in late August calling for the prosecution of military leaders for the genocide of the Rohingya and a decision by the International Criminal Court on Sept. 6 that it has jurisdiction over the alleged crime of deportation of hundreds of thousands of Muslims to Bangladesh.
On Monday, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a new "mechanism" to prepare criminal indictments for atrocities, including murder, torture, and rape, committed against the Rohingya. Ye Htut, a former lieutenant colonel in the Myanmar army who served as minister for information from 2014 to 2016 and spokesman for the president from 2013 to 2016, discussed the Rohingya issue, media freedom, the military, and Myanmar’s current government with reporter Kyaw Min Htun of RFA's Myanmar Service. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
RFA: What’s your assessment of the ICC’s recent decision and the involvement of U.N. organizations and international pressure on Myanmar regarding the Rohingya issue?
Ye Htut: I feel sorry for my country. I expected that our country could step forward to reform after we got a new government in 2015, but we have had a lot of pressure, although we have fewer sanctions than we did before. I think this is the worse time during which our country’s image has been hurt since after 1988 [the year during which a bloody crackdown by soldiers ended a nationwide democracy uprising against the then military regime]. It impacts all social, economic, and political reforms, as well as slows down the reform process.
RFA: Should the Muslims in northern Rakhine state be called “Rohingya” or “Bengali,” and should they be granted Myanmar citizenship?
Ye Htut: Granting them citizenship is not a huge issue. We gave some of them white cards [temporary identification cards], and we have maintained annual lists of the members of each household. We can check them against these lists to determine who has lived in the region. Then we can move forward to the citizenship process. For the [Rohingya] refugees who are in Bangladesh right now, I don’t think they will come back unless Myanmar gives them an exact time frame and lays out a process for their return. I didn’t accept the term “Rohingya” in the past, but the situation has changed. We should not recognize them as an ethnic group because they are not one, but I now accept that a person should be called whatever he wants to be called in keeping with the international community’s concept. If they are called Rohingya on documents, then the citizenship process would be easier. But if the government does this, then it must have support from the ethnic Rakhine [community].
RFA: People say that Myanmar is backpedaling on media freedom. What’s your take?
Ye Htut: The current government’s machinery is more like that of the [former] military junta administration, but unlike that of the government of [former president] Thein Sein. What I mean is that the leaders of previous military governments had doubts about institutions that they couldn’t directly control very well, such as the media and civil society organizations. The NLD party has had a hard time, and it has power now. The NLD doesn’t believe that criticism from others is democratic, but rather believes that such actions hurt its power and its opportunities to win the next election. That’s why the current government’s relationship with the media and CSOs [civil society organizations] is getting worse.
RFA: Do you mean to say that Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership style is similar to that of former Senior General Than Shwe, who ruled Myanmar from 1992 to 2011 as chairman of the military-led State Peace and Development Council?
Ye Htut: I mean her way of thinking is similar to his. We can see all sectors are increasingly coming under central government control. She is concerned about the work of her colleagues and is worried about mistakes being made if she gives them permission or assigns them duties on sensitive issues. She is also inexperienced in governance and administration. I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi uses more central control than did Senior General Than Shwe. For example, Senior General Than Shwe didn’t serve as the leader of any committee, but Aung San Suu Kyi is state counselor, she holds two ministerial positions, and she chairs about 16 state-level committees. I don’t think she should hold that many positions. No leaders from other countries do that. It makes running the government difficult.
RFA: Going back to media freedom, people say we have fewer rights to information, and that only the government spokesperson talks to the media for all sectors. That’s why media professionals are calling for the passage of a law guaranteeing the right to information. What do you say?
Ye Htut: [In the past,] we were working under a strong central control system so that we don’t have a good relationship with media. Former president Thein Sein developed a good relationship with the media. We have to be media friendly if we want to create a democratic country, even if we don’t like it. But we discovered something while we were building a good relationship with the media, and that was that it’s beneficial for the government to allow freedom of the media for the people. Government officials, departments, and ministries exercise self-control because they know the media are watching them. At first, the media didn’t trust us [in previous governments], so we had to build trust with them. But the media have been supporting Aung San Suu Kyi since 1988. No media outlet has gone against her. So, Aung San Suu Kyi and lawmakers from her party may be obsessed about the media supporting them at all times. They don’t believe that asking questions is the media’s job. This is why they may believe that the media do not support them, although they did in the past, and that the media can be bought [by other organizations]. Media freedom has been stymied by this kind of thinking.
RFA: When the government is trying to respond to pressure and complaints, it must deal with the military, but it appears that the current government’s control is not as effective as that of previous governments. Do you agree?
Ye Htut: The NLD has been opposed to the military since it was formed, and the military has taken actions against it and barred its activities. So, the NLD has been suspicious of the military, and it cannot view it as a collegial institution but rather as an obstacle. This damages the trust between the NLD and the military. Though three ministers [home affairs, border affairs, and defense] are nominated by the military chief, the president can decide whether he approves of them or not. If not, the president can ask the military chief for another nominee. And then, all laws must be written by [national and state] parliaments and voted on. If there are many votes in favor of a law, military lawmakers, who constitute 25 percent of the bodies, can’t reject the legislation. What I mean is that I don’t accept people saying that the government can’t work because of the way that the parliamentary system is constructed. It is because the government doesn’t adhere to a way that can work and can’t build trust with military so that it can work for the country. I think the Rakhine issue is getting worse because of these problems [between the government and the military]. Aung San Suu Kyi spoke out about human rights violations and other issues even when she was an opposition leader. But now that she is a state leader, she must speak out [on the Rakhine issue] if she thinks she should. If she does, the military will not stop her. It will be her decision. I don’t know what is she thinking, but she no longer has the courage to speak out when she should as she did in the past when she was the opposition leader.
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.