NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Myanmar vowed on Saturday to address concerns raised by President Barack Obama, outlining far-reaching plans to make peace with ethnic rebels, gradually release all political prisoners and relax controls on freedom of expression.
But its government, fearing an Arab Spring-style revolution if it moves too quickly, stressed reforms must be gradual after nearly a half century of isolation and authoritarian rule that ended when the army handed power in March to a civilian parliament stacked with former generals.
No longer Southeast Asia’s pariah state, Myanmar won a powerful endorsement on Friday when Obama announced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would visit the resource-rich country neighboring China, the highest-ranking American to do so since a 1962 military coup. Obama cited “flickers of progress.”
That came a day after Southeast Asian leaders approved of Myanmar, also known as Burma, as chairman of its regional ASEAN bloc in 2014, paving the way for a more influential role.
“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.
The fact he spoke at all is significant. Myanmar delegations studiously avoid the media at regional forums, quietly entering and leaving through auditorium backdoors. This year, officials stopped in hallways to take questions, sometimes with the flash of a smile, appearing to relish their moment.
For many Burmese such as Ko Ko Hlaing, it feels overdue.
The 55-year-old former military officer once managed a team of government researchers. They studied international affairs, and watched as the world changed, first with the Internet and then as democracy took root in the Philippines and Indonesia, itself an authoritarian state until the late 1990s.
Later, he became a radio and television personality before taking up his current post as the top advisor to the president., describing himself now as a “conscious reformer” who wants “dynamic but systematic and stable changes.”
Some conservatives, however, want Myanmar to go slower and a very small minority want no change at all, he said. “It is very difficult to change a mindset,” he said. “But almost all of the people accept that changes are needed. The train is leaving.”
Coming changes, he said, will directly address Obama’s concerns, including improving treatment of ethnic minorities and releasing remaining political prisoners.
Diplomats say those conditions must be met for the United States and the European Union to end punitive sanctions that have isolated Myanmar and pushed it closer to China. They were imposed in response to rights abuses, including the killing of thousands of pro-democracy supporters.
Clinton told FOX News she wants to see “a real political process and real elections.”
The Myanmar official said that will happen. More political prisoners, he said, would be released once the government determines the 230 activists freed in an October 12 amnesty had smoothly returned to society and politics.
“If it is OK, there will be a more immediate release of the next batch,” he said.
The test may come soon when the National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, contests by-elections expected in late December. The party ended a boycott of Myanmar’s political system on Friday by announcing it would register for the elections.
Her party, whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 was voided by the military, will give the elections a degree of credibility and possibly pave the way for more prisoners to be released if the vote goes smoothly.
Suu Kyi, herself released in 2010 from years of house arrest, has said about 400 activists remain behind bars.
“There is no concrete reason to delay the release of the political prisoners,” said Ko Ko Hlaing.
But he said Arab pro-democracy uprisings made Myanmar cautious in moving too fast.
“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 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.
Another U.S. priority, Clinton said, is ending Myanmar’s “terrible conflicts with ethnic minorities.”
That, too, is in the works, Ko Ko Hlaing said.
The government, he said, is in talks with minority groups, including 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 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.
A ceasefire agreed in 1994 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 say they fear a merger would erode their autonomy. Their 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, which has fought the government for more 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.
“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.
“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 that 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.
“We have to change the mindsets and attitude of all of society,” he said.
Editing by Neil Fullick