In a rare interview with reporters, Burmese President Thein Sein said that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be given a special post if she contests and wins upcoming elections and that further release of political prisoners will “depend on circumstances.”
He also said that his nominally civilian government, which came to power in March after decades of military rule, had made contact with nearly all armed ethnic rebel groups to forge peace but added that they had to adhere to certain conditions, including eventual surrender of arms.
Thein Sein, whose nascent reforms have been mostly welcomed by the international community, said the democracy that Burma would embrace “has to be a version most suitable for us as our customs, traditions, and religion are all different” from the West.
“We cannot put a square peg in a round hole. [Democratic reforms] must be in the best interests of the country,” he told a group of Burmese reporters, including RFA, at the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Indonesia which ended at the weekend.
It may be the first media interview given by a Burmese leader in half a century. Burma has been under harsh military rule since 1962.
Thein Sein indicated that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy agreed last week to re-register itself and contest upcoming by-elections, could hold a prominent post if she entered the polls and won. But he did not elaborate.
“First, she must contest in the polls and get into parliament and after that the parliament will assign her a suitable position,” said Thein Sein, who launched a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi in the early days of his administration. Details of the talks between the two have not been divulged.
“It all depends on the wishes of the people’s representatives. I have exchanged ideas with her once. We agreed to set aside the differences and will work on something common. Right now, it's hard to say what we'd do, but we agreed to join hands to bring about something on stability and development of the nation.”
The United States and other Western nations that have long-running sanctions on Burma are awaiting signals from Aung San Suu Kyi , who was freed from 15 years of house arrest last November following landmark elections, on when to lift the restrictions.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who is sending his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Burma next month, last week also sought Aung San Suu Kyi's "ideas and thoughts about the best approach" to inducing reforms in Burma.
Asked what will happen to the hundreds of political prisoners who remain locked up despite recent reforms, President Thein Sein said he would pardon them “depending on the circumstances.”
“We don't accept that they are behind bars because of their beliefs, but [maintain they are there] because they have broken some laws,” he said.
He said his government had released about 20,000 prisoners under amnesty programs since coming to power, including 6,300 prisoners last month.
Among them were more than 200 political prisoners, but key dissidents remain incarcerated.
Though estimates vary, the NLD says there are some 500 political prisoners still locked up.
On the question of armed ethnic conflict that has been going on for decades, Thein Sein said he wanted to end the strife and bring about much-needed development and stability for people in the country’s outlying border areas where the armed groups are seeking independence.
“What we need now is peace and stability. We have eight major insurgent groups in the country…. We have set up contacts with seven of them, talked to them, and have already agreed on cease-fires with them. And then we have to build trust,” Thein Sein said.
Among them were ethnic Kachin separatists who fought the army this year after the collapse of negotiations aimed at ending a conflict that dates to the 1960s along the Chinese border.
The government is also at odds with the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has fought the government for more autonomy since 1949.
“They won't want to surrender their arms initially. It doesn't matter. Eternal peace, as they are calling for, will come only when everyone lives together in peace under the same laws. They can form parties and be treated equally in parliament. All this will take time.”
But the president laid down three conditions: “They must not think of secession, they must accept the Constitution, and finally they must give up arms.”
To a question by RFA on what prodded him to pursue reforms, Thein Sein said the move to open up gradually was “made after consultations with the parliament and his cabinet members.”
His top priority, he said, is to wipe out poverty.
He said he is trying to devise a poverty eradication program so that the basic needs are made available to the poor.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.