U Zaw Htay, government spokesperson and director-general of the President’s Office recently talked to The Irrawaddy about the threats facing Rakhine State and press freedom in Myanmar.
Question: Fourteen parties including the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have called for a state of emergency to be declared in Rakhine State. What is the government’s response to their demand?
U Zaw Htay: The parties have concerns over national security, so they gave the government suggestions. We welcome this. A special meeting was held at the presidential residence on June 30 with an extensive discussion on the Rakhine issue. At the meeting, the military presented future plans and we discussed our ‘responsibility to protect.’ I can assure you the government is handling this issue seriously, though we cannot explain everything in detail. What I can tell you is we are doing everything that we should be doing.
National security is not only the concern of a single political party, but an issue the entire country should join hands to tackle together. I’d like to urge all political parties to disseminate knowledge about national security to the people.
As for the government, it is working to protect national security. The parties calling for a state of emergency need to understand this. We’d like to urge them to cooperate with us in a constructive way.
Q: Does their statement hassle the government?
U Zaw Htay: We aren’t hassled by it. It is usual for political parties to do such things. Some may not know about the procedures of the UN, and they may have drawn the wrong conclusions as a result. They can come and discuss with our foreign ministry experts to get a better understanding of UN procedures.
Q: USDP lawmaker U Hla Htay Win said the government did not try to put a UN resolution to form a fact-finding mission on Rakhine State to a vote at the Human Rights Council. Is that the case?
U Zaw Htay: There were disagreements over whether or not to put it to a vote. We had to think about whether the resolution would change even after a vote was taken. This is a technical matter and it is difficult to explain. So, what I want to say is, we welcome suggestions and we invite [the USDP and other parties] to come and talk with our UN experts.
Q: They were demanding the declaration of a military administration in Rakhine State, so what is the take of the Myanmar Army? Is it fully cooperating with the government?
U Zaw Htay: Yes, the army fully cooperates with the current government. It cooperates and collaborates with us. The responsibility of national security lies with the military. The Myanmar Police Force was under the direct control of the army in the past, but it has been under its own ministry since 2010. We [the government] still have a lot to learn about national security. At the same time, the army is doing what it should do, I’d say.
Q: Deputy Foreign Minister U Kyaw Tin said the government was handling the Rakhine issue through diplomatic channels on the international stage, and urged security personnel to take action with responsibility and accountability for human rights. Will the government investigate alleged human rights abuses?
U Zaw Htay: The army has formed an internal investigation team, as have the police. There are a lot of alleged human rights violations. But the commission led by the vice-president has yet to publish its report. One of its three responsibilities is to investigate alleged human rights violations. The commission will investigate and publish its report.
The government, Myanmar Army, Myanmar Army leaders, police chiefs, and the home affairs minister are not denying all of the allegations. What they have said is to present the cases to them with strong evidence if there were such violations. If there is evidence, they will investigate and find the truth. We’ve told this to the UN and all of the other organizations.
So, give us strong evidence, and we will take action in line with the law if allegations are found to be true. Military leaders share the same stance. So, we will have to review the reports of all investigative bodies to determine if those allegations are true.
Q: Why did the government decide to appoint Kofi Annan as chair of the Rakhine State Commission despite criticism and opposition? What is the benefit to the country?
U Zaw Htay: We formed the Rakhine State Advisory Commission led by Kofi Annan last August, and its mandate is to give us advice. It is an advisory commission, and is responsible for assessing the issue from various aspects and providing recommendations to bring about sustainable development.
Our government also released a statement that we are implementing the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission. There was no problem [insurgency] at the time we formed the commission last August. We formed it at that time so that we could explain to the international community in case of a problem in the future.
Whenever there is an accusation from the international community, we say we are taking action in line with the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission. The commission is serving as a shield for us. Was it not for Kofi Annan commission, the allegations would be much worse, I think.
Q: The government has appointed a national security advisor. What is his role? What can he do for national security?
U Zaw Htay: Most countries have a national security advisor. India has one and the US has a national security advisor and a national security council. In protecting national interests and national security, the first line of defense is diplomacy, and the last line of defense is the military.
It is not unusual to appoint a national security advisor. Those who criticize this may have their own reasons to do so. But, we need to observe international practices. If we take a look at where our national security advisor is going and what he is doing, then we’ll see.
The media often covers his statements and you can know what he is doing by assessing those statements. National security advisor U Thaung Tun is a former ambassador and has lots of experience and served as an ambassador under Snr-Gen Than Shwe amid mounting pressure [from the international community.]
He has a network and other advantages that he gained from his experiences as an ambassador. He will contribute to national security and national interests.
Q: Does the government have a strategic master plan for security and economic development of the entire country, including Rakhine State?
U Zaw Htay: The vision of our government is ‘Peace, Prosperity, Democracy.’ The State Counselor is focusing her efforts on peace. As for prosperity, the government is working for the promotion of education, health services and administrative reforms. These are priorities under our 12-point economic policy.
As for democracy, we are working for constitutional amendments and to build a democratic federal Union through the 21st Century Panglong peace conference.
Q: Members of the media are facing prosecution under laws such as Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. Why should the media face such restrictive laws under a democratic government?
U Zaw Htay: It is about the application of the laws. It is up to the complainant to choose under which law and article to file a lawsuit. The government can’t intervene in this. And it is the job of judges to decide with their own rationale if the charges fit the offenses or not.
What the government can do is to assess how the laws are applied and their consequences and propose that Parliament changes the laws if necessary. The government may take political conditions and the democratic cause into account in considering violations of those laws. But, it is difficult for us to tell the complainants not to use this and that law because this is a democracy.
Speaking of the media, we can’t just look at Article 66(d) and Article 17(1). We need to think about its entirety and have a long-term view. Similar things will happen in the future, and we need to think about how to monitor the media. There should be an institutional mechanism that monitors the media on their behalf before other institutions directly sue them. If there is an internal control, direct lawsuits from outsiders will be less likely.
The complainants may not accept it if we ask them not to use charges of 66(d) and 17(1). What I prefer is a mechanism like the press council, which will monitor the media and then prosecution will be the last option.
The media is also involved in the democratic transition of the country. Based on democratic norms, the media usually gets freedom of expression first. They can expand their space and rights – such as the right to information – during the transitional stage [of a democracy.] Once democracy is rooted, then [the government] will be able to protect the media.
Our transition has not reached a firm stage. And both parties need to understand this. Concerned institutions and stakeholders should join hands and brainstorm how to solidify this transitional stage. Each side will have their own views and concerns, but they should discuss the advantages, disadvantages, and consequences of the existing laws to find a solution that is acceptable to all.