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Yohei Sasakawa
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A Meeting with President Thein Sein - Visit to Myanmar (4) - [2012年01月13日(Fri)]

Photo of me with President Thein Sein; he complimented me on the traditional Myanmarese outfit I was wearing.

A Meeting with President Thein Sein
Visit to Myanmar (4)

During my recent trip to Myanmar I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Thein Sein at the presidential palace in Nay Pyi Daw. It was our first meeting since he was appointed president−following our earlier meeting in Tokyo in November 2009, when he visited Japan as prime minister.

During Thein Sein’s tenure as prime minister, a referendum on a new constitution was held and general elections were called. After taking over as president, he introduced democratic reforms at lightning speed. He suspended construction of the Myitsone dam, which was being built with Chinese capital to supply electricity to the Chinese market and was also opposed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The move marked a retreat from the country’s pro-China stance and was one that was sure to sour bilateral relations.

Thein Sein also removed the ban on the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Suu Kyi, wisely gave Suu Kyi permission to run for a seat in parliament, and welcomed a visit to the country by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It will take time for the United States to lift economic sanctions because approval by Congress is needed. But Britain has plans to significantly boost its aid in the near future, and the European Union is poised to do the same.

Although Japan and Myanmar have close ties, Japan has deferred to the United States in its diplomatic policies toward the military administration in Myanmar. And I know for a fact it has let Myanmar down on numerous occasions. Today Japan provides far less assistance to Myanmar than China and South Korea do. As someone familiar with the situation in Myanmar, I can only hope the government takes this opportunity to close that gap.

South Korea has found natural gas off the coast of Rakhine State and is now taking steps to produce it commercially within two years. President Thein Sein hopes that Japan will step up its assistance and that Japanese businesses will make inroads into the country, so the gap can be closed. He has also underscored the importance that transfers of agricultural technology from Japan can play in improving the lives of the Myanmar’s farmers.

The global population now stands at more than seven billion, and in the coming years the world will suffer from food shortages. China has begun importing some of its food, and grain prices have shot up 200% to 500% over the past two or three years. Rice has the potential to become a primary export commodity for Myanmar, since it can be harvested two or three times a year.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, when food shortages were rampant, Myanmar donated rice to Japan on numerous occasions. The country has a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people, and we must not forget the kindness extended us.

Under Thein Sein’s consummate leadership, Myanmar is closing the chapter on its long years of isolation and moving toward becoming a democratic member of the international community. The ardency and determination of the president are palpable. After years of junta rule, military control has seeped into the lowest administrative levels. This is something that won’t change overnight and will likely continue both openly and covertly for some time to come. Suu Kyi’s push for democracy is strong, and the international community is watching every move the president makes.

I asked Thein Sein about the possibility of allowing foreign media organizations to set up a bureau in Myanmar some time around 2013. The president replied frankly: “We’re in the process of drawing up legislation now for this purpose. But it’s been just eight months since the birth of a democratic administration. There are a ton of problems that need to be dealt with, so please be patient.”

Myanmar has been chosen as the host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. As part of the preparations for this event, we have proposed the creation of various human resource programs−including efforts centered on personnel at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs−and the reception in Japan of regular parliamentary delegations from Myanmar. President Thein Sein indicated his satisfaction at the approach taken by the Nippon Foundation and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation of involving the private sector in these efforts.
Posted by Y.Sasakawa at 09:00 | URL | comment(0)