Myanmar army chief on presidential ambitions, military role

Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing sat down with Channel NewsAsia’s May Wong for his first interview with a foreign journalist. In Part 1 of the interview, he addresses talk that he will run for president, and whether military representation in parliament should change.

NAY PYI TAW: Myanmar’s military chief has defended the role of the military in helping the country’s transition to democracy. The army currently represents 25 per cent of members in parliament, and there have been calls to reduce its role.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told Channel NewsAsia in an interview that he is aware of the people’s negative perception towards the army due to its history of military dictatorship. But he said he is slowly trying to change that and show the citizens how the military is performing its duties to protect and ensure peace in Myanmar.

Q: Myanmar is set to hold its supposedly free and fair elections by the end of this year. Your name has been thrown up very often, speculating that you will participate in the upcoming elections. Do you have plans to enter politics?

This is what people say – what they think. Actually carrying out my duty as commander-in-chief is a very important role for the country.

In order to protect the country we have to make our best efforts to build the capacity of the military. Besides, as the army was born from the people; it needs to be an army that protects the interests of the people. It also needs to be an army that acts to realise the interests of the people. That is why we have to try very hard to be in touch with the public. We have many kinds of activities in Myanmar, especially in remote areas there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

First of all, we have to make the army a good army. Secondly, we have to make it capable. Thirdly, we have to reach the people and be in touch. As my responsibility is very big, I try to concentrate on my duties.

Regarding what you mentioned just now, about entering politics – to be president, it will depend on the situation of the times. If I turn my attention to politics now, it is likely to affect or weaken my present job. Right now it is too early to make a decision or talk about it.

A: You said that your duty is to protect the people and to help the people improve their lives. Do you not feel that you can do that as a political leader? Do you not feel that you can do that as the president of Myanmar?

At present, there are many areas in which I am doing whatever I can. Actually, as a citizen, I carry out my duty whatever role I am entrusted with. As a matter of fact I can say what I am doing is national politics.

In our country, the most essential things are – firstly, we need peace. The second thing is unity. After we have these things, we need to make our country developed. Every citizen has this responsibility. As I am a citizen, I feel that whatever role I have to play, I shall do my best to carry out my duties.

Q: To bring about unity and peace, do you feel you can do a better job at that by becoming the president?

Each person can do his part according to his role. The president will do whatever he can in his capacity. In some matters, he needs assistance. I have to provide assistance. That is why each citizen has the opportunity to carry out his duty depending on his role.

Q: Do you have ambitions to become the president?

As I said to you earlier, as a citizen, there are three things we need to do. Peace, unity, and development. Whatever role we are given, each citizen has to carry out his duties. On my part, I will carry out whatever duty is required of me.

Q: To achieve peace, unity and development, as you said, where do you see the military’s role post-2015 elections?

The military’s duty is to defend the country. The work of protecting the country is very wide or comprehensive. There are defence activities that can be done directly, and there are defence activities that cannot be done directly. Therefore, the military has to carry out all the responsibilities that it is able to carry out. We will continue to carry out our duties in accordance with law.

Q: You said that the military has to protect the interests of the people. Is that why you are against removing and changing the 25-per cent representation by the army?

We will have to look at the country’s history and how it relates to the military. The history of the country cannot be separated from the history of the Tatmadaw (military). In the effort to gain independence, the army worked together with the people for independence. All along since then, we have been involved and played an important role. We have all this experience.

We are now moving along on the path of a multi-party system. To progress in this direction everyone needs to participate. At the same time people need to understand and practice democratic principles. In that respect the Tatmadaw is providing support.

Q: In order to achieve democracy, many have called for changes to be made. Many have called for amendments particularly section 436, which stipulates a mandatory 25 per cent representation of the military in parliament. Do you feel that by changing that section it will help the transition towards democracy?

This is related somewhat to the earlier topic. On my part, with regard to constitutional amendment, I have no objection to changing some of the provisions that require changes.

In Chapter 12 of the constitution there are sections that deal with amendments. We have to act according to those provisions. The laws were not drawn up by us. Representatives of the people from different sectors in society wrote the constitution. This was done with careful consideration and thought.

Therefore, I have no reason to object to amendment of the constitution according to law.

Q: You mention that the people wrote the constitution and it was written for the people as well. Do you feel as though this is the right time to change it, and in particular – I want to get back to the subject – of changing the military’s representation inside parliament?

We introduced a multi-party system in March 2011. It’s been only about four years. We are still a young democracy. As I said earlier, we cannot separate the country’s history from the history of the military. Based on our experience, when we are moving towards a multi-party democratic system it needs to be a strong system.

In a parliamentary democracy, the executive, legislative and judiciary need to have the opportunity to work independently. With regard to the parliament, there are many areas in which the parliament can carry out activities. In order to encourage and support such activities the Tatmadaw is participating.

Q: When we look at the multi-party system as you mentioned, it’s a very young system. What factors do you think the country ought to consider before you start reducing the power and control of the military in order to allow the multi-party system to fully establish itself?

We have had only four years’ experience. With regard to lawmaking it is the duty of the parliament. The military representatives in parliament only give advice in the legislative process, they can never make decisions.

We will make recommendations – what should be done, what should not be done. The parliament makes the decisions. They can use our recommendations if they want. If they can’t accept our recommendations, it doesn’t matter. If parliament can practice democracy properly, then we’ll have to see. We’ll continue to act depending on the situation that arises.

Q: But at the moment you all know that the military controls 25 per cent of the votes. In order for things to move for legislation you will require more than 75 per cent of the votes. So effectively, you cannot move unless the military gives the green light.

That’s not true. They can do everything. For example, in parliament we just have 25 per cent of the votes, that’s all. For example, in making laws, there are many laws that have been passed with majority support. It’s not dependent on our 25 per cent support or rejection.

Whether we support or not, depending on how important the business is, the bill can be passed. There may be some conditions that restrict – but they are not a cause for concern.

– CNA/xq