Name: Minister U Soe Thane
Government Ministry: President Office (3)
Job Title: Senior Minister
MI: How did you start your career as civil servant?
ST: I joined the Armed Forces through the Defense Service Academy at the age of 16. Since my native hometown is close to the coastline, I have always been interested in the Navy and I chose to join after graduation. I was in the Navy for 41 years. I was also able to go to many countries to attend training courses.
I moved from cadet to lieutenant to captain until I reached the position of Vice-Admiral, the most senior position in the Navy. When I retired from the Navy at 60, I was transferred to the ministry of Industry as a minister. I participated in the elections of the new government in late 2010. My constituency was Kyun Su township, in Tannitharyi division. There were no other contestants there and I was elected to the Parliament.
When the cabinet of the current government was formed, I was asked to be part of the new cabinet as industry minister. During my time as the Industry minister, I managed to merge the two industry ministries in order to link up all the state owned enterprises. My latest portfolio is the co-coordinating minister for economic development.
MI: Yours Excellency has held various senior positions since the changeover from the military government to the present civilian government. Can you summarize the various portfolios that you have held so far?
ST: During my Armed Forces service, I tried my very best to improve and develop the Navy; I remember initiating and building the first frigate ship (108m long) of Myanmar. I managed to create many training programs locally and abroad for all Navy personnel for capacity building. When I moved to the Industry ministry, I concentrated towards SME sector and green/renewable energy development. During my two year term, I have also established at least six vocational training centres as part of the human resource development.
MI: Can you explain the current reforms being carried out by the government? ST: I am one of these so called ‘reformist’ ministers. Even though the new government started in April 2011, frankly, we did not exactly know what to do, at that point of time. We have never seen or experienced democracy so we simply did not know how to do either.
Only after two to three months later, we reviewed and planned what we really wanted and needed to do. We came to realize that the first priority was to improve the condition of our people, especially in rural areas who are extremely poor and backward. We reviewed why this is the case and agreed that this could be due to the system that we had followed for many years. The leaders from the previous government also tried to develop the country. They built many roads, schools and bridges, but people are still very poor. This system of top-down decision making did not seem to be what the people wished for.
We realized that following a top-down approach may not have sufficient impact on the life of the people. Only when we can fulfill the people’s genuine needs, the government and the people will be aligned and move in the same direction. The government may have built the bridges and roads, but if people just wanted food to eat, this is an example of being out of alignment. So, we got the idea to combine bottom-up and top- down decision making approaches to ensure alignment of needs. That is when we decided to start the political reforms and socio economic reforms. By that time, it was already August/September of 2011.
In the past, there used to be armed conflicts within political parties; now we are on friendly terms. This is the result of the political reforms, with all political leaders including the release of Daw Aung San Su Kyi.
At the time when Hillary Clinton made an official visit here in 2011 December, we were thinking of releasing most of political prisoners. We would naturally not want for the two events to coincide.
When we talked to State Secretary, we were surprised to find out how liberal she was. She has foresight too. I am very thankful to her, on behalf of our country. From our conversations with her, we have better understanding of the direction that we want to lead our country to. Our present reform drive has much support from her.
After she returned to USA, we would also not want to tie her visit with the release of political prisoners. We did release most of the political prisoners in January and February of 2012. These include significant figures such as Zarganar and 88th generation student leaders.We also held by elections in April 2012, where all parties participated. Soon after, we realized that we needed peace across the nation. Without peace, there would be no democracy and there will not be economic growth. With that in mind, the President invited different ethnic armed groups to join him to discuss the peace process on August 18, 2011. We managed to sign a cease fire agreement with the Shan group in December 2011. We signed further peace agreements with the KNU in January 2012.
In addition, we have relaxed rules on civil societies and many of them have sprung up. Unlike previously, we regard them as our working partners for the betterment of the country.
In similar fashion, we liberalized our media sector and allowed freedom of expression. The government became more tolerant of criticisms and different viewpoints put forward by different groups. All of these are direct results of our political reforms. In terms of social economic reforms, we witnessed the birth of a new Myanmar; a democratic, all inclusive, sustainable and dynamic country. We are all moving in that direction. We have definitely moved for the better.
We also needed good relations with the international community to realize our vision. The international community began to accept our reform process after about one year. Hillary Clinton’s visit also played a part here. We managed to meet her again in Siam Reap for a second time. With US acceptance, the world acceptance of our reforms became easier, as most of the countries follow US leadership. As the US moves towards accepting us, our path to reforms become more established and well accepted around the world.
The results were tremendous; we got our sanctions lifted first by Norway and then Australia. Then I tried to convince EU. I was the first to meet the EU trade commissioner and explain our continuing reforms. They lifted the sanctions as a result and we also managed to secure GSP (Generalised Scheme of Preference) eventually.
The President travelled to the US in 2012 and gave a speech at the UN. The members accepted the reform oriented speech. During that time, the President passed an invitation letter to Hillary Clinton, for President Obama to visit Myanmar. I remember it was on 27 October 2012. I went to the State Department thereafter on November 1, to discuss the plans for visit of President Obama.
There was a presidential election on November 6 in the US at that time. Even though we both agreed on the visit, due to the election, we kept the news secret till after the election. Only after President Obama won the election, was his visit to Myanmar was made public. And he visited Myanmar on November 19, 2012. Within 19 days after we sent our invitation, President Obama was in Myanmar. This has helped our reforms tremendously. And forgiving Myanmar national debt started to happen thereafter. We have a total debt of nearly six billion US dollars, incurred by previous governments. As a result of positive publicity, Myanmar began to receive interest from business and economic participants around the world. We regained our good image in the international arena. We established the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) law and significant foreign investments started to come in, even if it is not as large as I had hoped. This is due to our socio-economic reforms.
While carrying out all these reforms, we encountered so many issues in the implementation aspects. We then realised that we require (government) administrative reforms too. People failed to change their mindsets and those who are willing to change, are short on capacity. We realised we cannot move without capacity improvement and mindset changes. We ended up adding administrative reforms to the list of changes that we are moving ahead with.
We acted to improve the capacity in the government sector as well as to improve governance in local administration with people centric movement and people centered development. We also invited many foreign NGOs and organizations to hold forums in Myanmar, especially concerning human rights. Previously, if they wanted to come and talk about human rights in Myanmar, the government would not approve at all. Now everyone can come and have a forum and talk about human rights, be it ILO (International Labour Organization) or other human rights groups. We took action on human rights and forced labour issues and we have material improvements in these areas. Of course, talking is easy; but if you have to carry out so many changes within two years, it is easier said than done.
The peace process is also not as easy as it seems. The deputy president of Indonesia has come here to discuss the experience of their peace process with only one group, Aceh rebel group. We also held discussions with government personnel from Philippines. And they shared their experiences with MILF (Moral Islamic Liberation Front) rebels. That’s just one group. We also studied the case of Ireland, where the discussions lead to peace in Northern Ireland, between the British and the Irish. However if you look at our case, it is not just one group! We have 16 armed groups in Myanmar that we have to negotiate peace with, maybe more.
Even after starting political, socio- economic and administrative reforms, we noticed that the economy is still growing slowly. We are all agreed that private sector reform is the next step to rev up the economic engine. Previously, the whole economy is centrally planned and controlled by state owned enterprises. But the government sector currently comprises of only about 10% of the economy. We cannot move the economy into fast growth mode with that 10%. We encouraged the 90% private sector to move ahead and paved the way for their forward growth.
So, all in all, we ended up with four reforms, concurrently being pushed forward by the government. If you remember Mikhail Gorbachev, he just did the political reform only and ended up with just that. For China, Deng Xiao Ping carried out the socio-economic reforms, but the political system is still communism. Even in Vietnam, there are only economic changes without political change. For us, we are carrying out all these reforms simultaneously. It is extremely difficult. It’s easy to criticize, it’s easy to find fault with the reforms, but until you are in charge of introducing and implementing these, you would not realise how difficult these have been.
Of course, we still have to do it, as our objective is to become a democratic country. Even the President has never experienced a democratic government, since Myanmar as a democratic country and society disappeared during our early teens. So, the President also did various acts that would enhance the welfare of the people. We held more town hall like interactions with people and the President broadcast monthly speeches via radio to the people. In fact, the monthly radio broadcast was suggested by former Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. We would not have thought of this by ourselves. He recommended us to provide regular messages to the people, just like President Obama. If the suggestion is good, we have no shame in following the advice of these good people.
In the message by our President, there are three points: 1. Peace and Stability 2. Betterment of people lives 3. Leaving younger generation with good democracy inheritance. We are all old already. I have no other hidden agenda other than moving the country towards these three directions. We took it upon ourselves that we are going to be the foundation of all future democratic governments. We cannot build super structures, but we will lay strong foundations. Democracy and democratic system is not completed with a single transition government. It needs further push and continuation by future governments.
Previously we have not had much contact with international community; now that we have plenty of such contacts, we are totally open to criticisms. The status of reforms and our government has been written in the McKinsey report, Oxford Business Group Report, etc. Journals such as your Myanmar Insider can report freely of this interview around the region, for example.
One socio-economic development reform that we need is the national census; previously our statistics were inaccurate, be it GDP, the agriculture sector or business statistics. Three months after we came into power, we decided that we needed correct statistics and decided on the census. The plan started since then and we are about to carry out the census now. Only with the census, will we have accurate statistics for the country.
If you just pick and point out any aspect or area of the country, there are plenty of improvements needed in that area/aspect even now. We accept that. It’s close to impossible to implement all the 360 degree changes. Nonetheless, we are pushing ahead with changes.
The same can be said in the area of corruption. I am also a member of the anti-corruption committee. Two years ago, Myanmar was one of the last three in the. corruption index. Now we have improved significantly. We enacted laws that encourage transparency; we acted on complaints and corruption information, etc. I am sure all of us agree that we cannot reach the level of Singapore within a period of two years. No one can move a country this large and this diverse from being at the bad end of the list to move up 180 places to reach to the other end.
We also understand the issues of land grabs. This is what our government inherited from the previous government. During our government time, there is no land grabbing. All of this has been stopped. Of course, all these land-related cases from the previous system have to be given time to be resolved. In addition, we started providing farmers and planters with land ownership certificates. We acknowledge and grant rights to people who have been making a living encroaching in forests. We have designated them as villages and given them official land rights.
We now have also finished up township and city development plans, with the help of urban development experts. We also intend to provide land to farmers and growers’ families in their own hometowns. We are also in the process of finishing up affordable housing for workers in many areas. Our target is to resolve most of the land issues by the end of 2015.
Another area that I would like to highlight is the ICT (Information Community Technology) sector. At the start of term of the current government, the sector reached only 5% of the population. Now it is about 18%. Within the next two years, we expect it to reach 50%.
The changes are also visible in the automobile and transport sector. Previously, we are using the oldest of old cars. Now everyone can import whatever car they fancy. Of course, the side effect is traffic congestion; that one we are also tackling slowly, but surely.
There are many other evidences of reforms, but I summarized most parts due to time limitations.
MI: How is the reform process meeting the expectations of both local and foreign enterprises, citizens, government agencies and NGOs?
ST: I believe we are moving ahead of their expectations. Some are even saying we are moving too fast. We said this is the 21st century and we cannot possibly move at a snail’s pace.
We knew that there are dangers associated with moving too fast. At the same time, we want the people to experience and enjoy the benefits of our reforms as soon as possible. That’s why we prioritized rural development and poverty reduction. If they cannot enjoy the fruits of our reforms, people may become tired of democracy and reforms. When they enjoy it, then they will be more willing to participate and join us in the reforms. That’s why we need to be fast. We also get much help from other countries. Sometimes, I have spoken to some media organisations that I am really surprised that non-Burmese and non-citizens are assisting us in our transitions. They applauded us for bravely pushing ahead with reforms. This is in contrast with a few groups from within our country who are not recognizing our government and reforms and acknowledging the benefits felt by ordinary folks.
MI: What are the main policies that the Government has changed or adapted to accommodate Myanmar’s new trends and its opening up to international markets? ST: The main policies that we are following are based on international standards of investments and legal frameworks. Implementation of some policies has been slow as it involves changing an existing law through parliament.
Investors typically understand the economic potential of our country. They are typically watchful of political stability. Of course, if everyone is united and all striving towards democracy, no doubt there would be political stability. However, if we become self centered and acted out of self interest to grab power, out from the path towards democracy, then the political stability will be threatened.
One of the issues that unexpectedly emerged during our term is the Rakhine issue. This is an extremely sensitive issue and we are paying close attention to it and acting to tackle the issue.
MI: Are you satisfied with the current reform process? Which areas have exceeded your expectations and which areas have not?
ST: If we compared with the situation of Myanmar to the past, it is quite satisfactory, giving the speed of achievement and implementations within a couple of years. Unwinding the past 60 years of policies and moving forward within this time should be quite satisfactory. We are definitely better than yesterday. And we will have an even better tomorrow because of our right actions today.
On the other hand, if you look at the practical aspects, we need to try a lot harder. We need to have more people wanting to move towards democracy. If all the 60 million people wanted to move, that would be an ideal situation. But it is not the case. I am sad and disappointed at the same time, that some people forget that the democratic way is the one and only way forward. They forgot the overall strategy and began to focus on tactics and operations to attack one another and score one over the other side; engaging in criticisms, unsubstantiated personal attacks, etc. They got bogged down by tactics and forgot the whole importance of strategy to lead the country forward. One of my good personal friends, Goh Chok Tong, used to advise me in many ways to help improve Myanmar. One good question he asked was how many people like you were within the current administration? I answered roughly five. He replied, the country cannot be moved to a new path with just five. What I am trying to say here is we need more people to push the reforms through. That’s why I always ask civil societies to help move the country towards democracy.
So from one aspect, I am quite satisfied, but from another aspect, I am not. I have a good analogy; we have a fence. One side of the fence lie all the people who want reforms. The other side of the fence lie the hardliners. There are also a ton of people who are sitting right on the fence.
Changing from military government to a democratic one is not an easy job. All the institutions have had ties with military. The mindsets of the people are also one of always waiting for orders to be given to them. But these are not institutions suitable for democracy. So we ended up having to rebuild the democratic institutions from scratch. And we now, have such institutions. The difficulty is the people who are going to be in charge of these new institutions to bring forward new thinking and new ways of administration are still the old guards. We are now short of the new mindsets to bring these institutions forward.
Of course, with the objective of making the country better, we will do whatever is within our means to move and to change.
[This is part 1 of an extensive interview with His Excellency U Soe Thane, the second half will appear in the June edition of Myanmar Insider]