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Myanmar's National Security Advisor Thaung Tun speaks to Nikkei reporters in Tokyo on June 5.   © Not selection
Politics

Myanmar 'making progress' on peace talks, Rohingya, China ties

National security advisor denies systematic abuse in Rakhine State conflict

TOKYO -- Myanmar has made significant progress on peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups, and is addressing the problems of the Rohingya Muslim minority, Thaung Tun, the country's national security advisor, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday.

Highlighting Myanmar's strategic position between China and India, he also noted the country's active engagement with both powers, particularly with Beijing, which has featured high level exchanges on both sides, including visits to China in recent months by Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw.

"China is a very important partner [for Myanmar]," Thaung Tun said. "We have 2,000km of border with China, we want to see our country as a venue for cooperation rather than any rivalry," he said in a clear reference to growing competition between countries such as Japan and China for economic and political influence in Myanmar.

"Myanmar has always had cooperation with China, and is now working closely together... We are working on special arrangements [on a range of areas] ... We are old friends -- even friends sometimes have disagreements -- but overall, we work together," he said, citing the recent launch of an oil pipeline which tracks a parallel gas line opened in 2013 running from the Bay of Bengal off Myanmar's west coast to Yunnan in southern China. "When China rises and becomes a big economic power it will also have to shoulder additional responsibilities," he said, citing the lines as a key part of Beijing's One Belt, One Road initiative.

The veteran former diplomat, who served as Myanmar's ambassador to the European Union, the Philippines and other countries, also hailed a recent agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a framework agreement for a code of conduct in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

"The framework was agreed two weeks ago at the senior-officials level and will be taken to ministerial level and the [ASEAN] summit at the end of the year," he said. "We believe that although it has taken rather long to arrive at this point it is a very encouraging start. It's just a framework but it's very good to get agreement.... We have the skeleton and we have to flesh out the details; the positive thing is that China is now talking with the Philippines, previously they were at loggerheads. At least two of them are starting to talk."

Reflecting broader security concerns, he highlighted the rise of non-traditional security threats, including transnational crime, cyber security and climate change, all of which affect Myanmar, he noted. In particular, the rapid development of telecommunications in Myanmar, where internet penetration has risen from less than 8% in 2011 to well over five times that level, made the country more vulnerable to cyberattacks, he said.

"We are developing e-banking, e-commerce, and it's very important at this early stage of our modernization program. Nothing should rock the boat at this stage. We have set up our own cybersecurity organization, although it's still in early stages... We have gone from almost zero to almost 100% mobile coverage, SIM cards that cost $2,000 are now a couple for a dollar. And social media is taking off. This can be positive ... but it can also lead to incitement to violence," he said.

On international criticism of Myanmar's brutal treatment of the Rohingya population, he denied charges voiced by the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international organizations of systematic abuses of Rohingya by Myanmar's security forces, echoing the government's recent rejection of a U.N. backed fact-finding mission to investigate alleged abuses.

"There is no policy of systematic abuse, there is no ethnic cleansing nor genocide; to say there is a policy of rape and plunder is just not true ... present us with the evidence and we will investigate," Thaung Tun said, noting that specific cases of military abuse were being dealt with in military courts. On concerns voiced by the international community -- including some Asian leaders -- about the plight of the country's mainly stateless Rohingya population, the government had accepted the recommendations of an advisory commission appointed by Suu Kyi and led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he said.

Measures already being implemented include allowing media access to areas previously off-limits in northern Rakhine state, scene of a harsh military crackdown on Rohingya communities in October, he said. The government has also adopted a recommendation to begin closing camps for displaced people and resettling inhabitants, and is facilitating humanitarian aid distribution in the state, one of the country's poorest.

Peace process

One of the most notable achievements in the government's 14 months in office has been recent progress on peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups, he said.

"We really tried to focus on promoting national reconciliation; we have tried in the first year ... to bring to the table all ethnic groups. Eight have signed [a cease-fire agreement under the previous government].

In the most recent meeting, in late May, which drew together more than 750 representatives from ethnic groups, government, military and civil society in the capital, Naypyitaw, negotiators agreed on crucial points, that Myanmar would be a democratic federation, although within the framework of a national constitution, with federal finance, federal courts and so on," he said. "But this has not yet been written in a document. Of course, some groups don't want to commit themselves to non-secession ... but this will be fundamental. There will be another round after six months." Thaung Tun acknowledged the challenges of his role, a new office created by Suu Kyi that aims to bridge the delicate divide between military and civilian elements in Myanmar's emerging democracy. While observers have questioned the extent of military support for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy-led administration, he noted cooperation from the military-dominated branches of government, which include the powerful home affairs, border affairs and defense ministries.

The role of national security advisor provided a remit in almost all areas that touched on security, he acknowledged. "I was actually co- opted to this job. I had long experience as a diplomat and I used to lecture military brass at [Myanmar's] military college. I know many of them ... And the [civilian] government at least runs the show, we collect and collate information from all ministries," he said. As the newest part of the civilian government, however, the office of the national security advisor was "still a work in progress."

"We are now looking at other examples, from large to smaller countries too, such as Mongolia. We have good working relations with the military, there's no problem with that. I can tell you that sometimes, when I go to international conferences dealing with national security we have a team that includes military members. We all work together -- it's all for the same cause."

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