Major General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling military council and deputy minister for information, held the Myanmar junta’s first news conference Tuesday since it seized power in a coup on Feb. 1. The briefing in the capital Naypyidaw was widely boycotted by the local media, leaving RFA Burmese Service senior editor Aye Aye Mon free to pose multiple questions to the military spokesman on issues including the constitutionality of the coup, the detention of elected leaders, the use of force against protests, and the death from gunfire of a young protester. A video of the back and forth with the veteran army flack, which was broadcast live on state TV, went viral on social media in the country of 54 million people. Within hours, some 200,000 people had shared it on the RFA Burmese Facebook page. Following are excerpts from the exchange, edited for length and clarity:
RFA: State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the elected government leaders have been removed and charged with possession of a walkie talkie and other charges. The international community has criticized the lawsuit as politically motivated. How do you respond to the criticism that the military government is neglecting the rule of law?
Zaw Min Tun: We will abide by laws that do not supersede the Constitution. Many laws have to be taken into consideration in executing political processes. We will not do anything that is not in accord with the law.
RFA: Under the 2008 constitution the president can be removed from his position only with the consent of 2/3 of parliament. It has now been widely pointed out that President Win has been removed unlawfully. What do you have to say on this?
Zaw Min Tun: That is Section 71. You read it out from the Constitution and thus it is correct. But there are other laws regarding that one. In section 417 let me quote. ‘If there is or reason to believe that there is an emergency situation when the state power is endangered by insurrection’ …Under section 40(c) of Chapter 1… ‘The commander in chief can take over state power in accordance with the Constitution if an emergency situation comes up by insurrection or threats by force leading to disintegration of the union and unity of the national races or if sovereignty is endangered.’ The Tatmadaw has issued several statements following the coup and you can see all the explanations about the legality in those statements.
RFA: Certain laws have been changed in recent days without the consent of the parliament and, in some cases like penal code amendment, the protesters can be given 20-year jail sentences. However, on the other hand, in several videos online we have seen security personnel using excess of force against peaceful protesters in many incidents. Will action be taken against these perpetrators from the security forces? How much guarantee can we get from the Tatmadaw that unarmed peaceful protesters can be protected by the law?
Zaw Min Tun: People have their rights under the Constitution. But when they are using their rights as citizens, they must also respect the rights of others. In an emergency period, there are certain regulations. The first objective of the new laws is achieving peace and security for the people and the country. We didn’t put restrictions on everything. There are restrictions only on certain situations. Police and other security personnel are carrying out their responsibilities in accordance with their manuals. What happened at Thabyegon was started by the protesters who yelled out vulgarities and threw rocks at the police. I can definitely say the security forces didn’t start the violence.
RFA: A video taken in Mandalay shows a police officer in a car using a slingshot to shoot pellets at civilians. Is it legal?
Zaw Min Tun: We have seen the videos too. The trucks carrying the police were moving along and some people were throwing rocks at them. The police cannot use a truncheon or firehose from the car. Depending on the locality, the policemen might be using slingshots. For his own defense and instead of using a gun, he may use it. Police manuals do not say they have no right to use slingshots.
RFA: Doctors who treated Ma Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing in Naypyidaw said the bullet fired by security forces that pierced her helmet and lodged in her head was not a rubber bullet but a metal bullet. Has the military investigated whether the security forces are using live ammunition?
Zaw Min Tun: We didn’t say in our statements that we used rubber bullets. We will give you video files on this. She was one of those who threw rocks at the police. We are also conducting an investigation. In our statements we said she was wounded by gunfire, we didn’t say whether it was rubber bullets or real bullets. We will handle this case in accordance with the law.
RFA: Since the military came to power, the internet has been cut off or severely restricted several times. There were also total shutdowns. Why the shut down? There are reports saying that China is helping the military regime’s cybersecurity firewalls, to spy on anti-government activities and critics and to curtail the freedom of information and debate. Are they true?
Zaw Min Tun: We didn’t write (the draft Cyber Security Law). It has existed since the previous government. I cannot say whether we will pass new laws. Rumors abound. We do not need Chinese IT experts to build firewalls. I can say we have enough IT experts to deal with this.
RFA: This question is about freedom of the press. The Commander-in-Chief said yesterday that he accepted the media as the fourth pillar. It has often said it will not deviate from the path of democracy. But on the other hand, the government is also repeatedly monitoring the press, restricting the free press and online discussion, and limiting social media network. It has suspended the Privacy Act, and is enacting cyber laws. Now a new criminal offense has been created for defamation of the state. Does the military guarantee freedom of the press?
Zaw Min Tun: The media has been writing freely since Feb. 1. But it is important that everything should be within the bounds of the law. I cannot give guarantees that we will or we won’t impose restrictions. But I dare say we will do everything in accordance with the law.
RFA: Are you going to arrest people if I resume RFA’s Politics Today Program?
Zaw Min Tun: All I can say it we will act according to the law. I will not say we will arrest nor not arrest someone. But we will act according the law as necessary.’
Translated by Thein Aung.