NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Myanmar’s government vowed on Saturday to address concerns raised by President Barack Obama, outlining far-reaching plans to make peace with ethnic rebels, gradually release more political prisoners and relax controls on freedom of expression.
But its government also expressed caution, stressing that reforms must be gradual to ensure a stable transition to democracy after nearly a half century of isolation and iron-fisted rule that ended when the army handed power in March to a civilian parliament stacked with former generals.
Citing “flickers of progress” since the election, Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country on Friday for a two-day visit next month to explore the possibility of new ties with the resource-rich country neighboring China.
Some conservatives, however, want to keep the pace of that progress slow and a very small minority want no change at all, said a senior Myanmar government official.
“We don’t know all about the democratic systems but we are trying our best to make an effective transition to democracy,” Ko Ko Hlaing, Chief Political Adviser to President Thein Sein, told Reuters in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
“We have to change mindsets and the attitude of all society. It is very difficult to change a mindset,” said the 55-year-old former military officer, who was a radio and television personality before taking up his current post.
But the government, he said, would address concerns raised on Friday by Obama, who praised Myanmar’s recent reforms but said more needed to be done on long-standing issues of human rights, treatment of ethnic minorities and the continued detention of political prisoners.
The Myanmar official said more political prisoners would be released but the government first wanted to assess whether the 230 activists freed in an October 12 amnesty were integrating into society and national politics smoothly.
“We would like to see that everything is running well after the first batch of released prisoners and that they are taking a role in our politics. If it is OK, there will be a more immediate release of the next batch,” he said.
Many released prisoners have said they planned to rejoin the pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 was voided by a military intent on maintaining power.
The NLD re-registered on Friday to contest upcoming by-elections that will be a test of stability.
The United States and Europe have said freeing political prisoners is crucial to even considering lifting sanctions that have isolated the former British colony and pushed it closer to China. But the exact number behind bars is unclear.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that tracks prisoners, identified some 1,245 “political prisoners.” But that appears to include armed rebels or those who used force to oppose the government.
The party led by Suu Kyi, herself released from house arrest last year, says about 400 activists remain behind bars.
“I can’t say exactly the time but there is no concrete reason to delay the release of the political prisoners,” said Ko Ko Hlaing, noting that Arab pro-democracy uprisings made Myanmar cautious in moving too fast in releasing all prisoners.
“As you can see in the Arab states and also in Syria, there is some turmoil. Even in Egypt. There were mobs. So what our leaders would like to see is a stable and smooth transition to democracy,” he said. “Some prisoners committed terrorist acts. We are worried about this, that they may shake the boat.”
Diplomats say the government may especially fear former military officers arrested in 2004 when former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt was accused of corruption and purged, but Ko Ko Hlaing dismissed this concern.
“He will be equally treated as other prisoners,” he said.
Ko Ko Hlaing also outlined plans to reconcile with minority groups, including ethnic Kachin separatists who fought government troops this year after the collapse of talks aimed at ending a conflict that dates to the early 1960s along the border with China, an area rich in jade and timber.
“The peace process with the Kachin group is very slow currently. But we are trying to break the stalemate and we are trying to find other ways to make advances in the peace process,” he said, adding the government was reaching out to ethnic Kachin elders but did not want international mediation.
The group agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 but that fell through last year when the government tried to force all ethnic minority forces to merge with its military-run Border Guard Force.
Guerrillas of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) refused, fearing a merger would erode their autonomy. The Kachin force numbers at least 10,000 well-armed and experienced fighters.
The government is also at odds with the Karen National Union (KNU), and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has been fighting the central government for greater autonomy since 1949.
Racked by defections and dissension, the KNU, once the largest of the armed ethnic groups, is a shadow of its former self. It suffered a major setback in late 1994 when a Buddhist faction calling itself the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) staged a mutiny against the Christian-dominated group, breaking away and defecting to the government.
A faction of DKBA fighters have resisted being forced into the Border Guard Force.
Ko Ko Hlaing said the government aimed to pacify Karens and other ethnic groups with economic incentives, not violence.
“Peace and development is entwined. Without peace and security, we cannot make any development projects in those areas. And unless those areas are developed, the insurgency is prolonged for a long time. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario and we have to break eggs,” he said.
The government, he said, had made progress with other minority groups. “We are now negotiating with the Wa group in the southern Shan states and some associated groups, and these negotiations are under progress.”
A new media law is also in the works, he said, after decades in which every song, book, cartoon and planned piece of art required approval by censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Myanmar’s authoritarian system.
“Our new media law will reflect guaranteed freedom of expression, so no censorship. But there will be some monitoring systems,” he said. “The censorship will only be cultural and religious. Other than that they can express opinions freely.”
In September, Myanmar lifted bans on prominent news websites, including some run by government critics, and unblocked online video portal YouTube. Some sites were blocked at the peak of an army crackdown on monk-led protests in 2007. In August, state-run newspapers dropped back-page banners attacking the West.
“There are some people who don’t want to make reforms. But almost all of the people accept that changes are needed,” he said. “Conservative people would like to see a gradual and cautious change, and some reform-minded people would like to have rapid changes. But there are very few people who would like to see no change,” he added. “The train is leaving.”
Editing by Paul Tait