In an exclusive interview with Mr Murat Yavuz Ates, Ambassador to Myanmar from the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, Mizzima’s Aung Thura asks about Turkey’s relationship with Myanmar and the recent foiled coup attempt in that country.
Mr Murat Yavuz Ates is the first resident Ambassador of Turkey to Myanmar.
What was the outcome of the recent visit of the Turkish Foreign Minister to Myanmar?
The visit of the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey, His Excellency Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, during 12-14 June 2016 was an important event. It was the first visit from Turkey after the establishment of the new government in Myanmar. During the visit the Turkish Foreign Minister had the chance to have bilateral meetings with State Counsellor and Foreign Minister H.E. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, H.E. U Htin Kyaw and the Commander in Chief, H.E. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. At these meetings the Foreign Minister discussed issues relating how to best further develop the political, economic and cultural ties between the two countries. The Minister also visited the Turkish War Cemetery in Thayet (Magway) as well as Rakhine State.
Can you provide information about the Turkish War Cemetery in Thayet. What is the importance of this war cemetery in Turkish-Myanmar relations?
Although it is not known to many, historical relations between Turkey and Myanmar go further back to the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire and Kingdom of Burma had honorary consulates in each other’s territories in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, Turkish soldiers who were captured by the British during the First World War (1914-1918) in the Middle East and Europe, more than a hundred years ago, were brought to Prisoner of War (PoW) camps in Burma. In these PoW camps they were made to build roads, dams and national parks (Pyin Oo Lwin Botanical Park in Mandalay is one such example). When the First World War ended, all the Turkish soldiers who survived these camps left Burma. Unfortunately many of the Turkish soldiers did not survive PoW camp life and died during their imprisonment and were buried in war cemeteries in Burma. Today we have two existing Turkish War Cemeteries in Myanmar, one in Thayet and the other in Meikthila. Almost a 1000 Turkish soldiers are buried in these two war cemeteries. We see these war cemeteries as historical bridges binding Turkey and Myanmar.
During the Minister’s visit, one issue that was brought up was the situation in Rakhine State. This is a sensitive subject with the Myanmar government. How did the Myanmar government respond? What was the Turkish message on this issue?
Turkey sees Myanmar as a friendly country and desires that it further becomes a more democratic, pluralistic and inclusive country where the rule of law prevails. Within this framework, Turkey has been supporting Myanmar in its economic development and reform process as well as its quest to reach a comprehensive lasting peace and a harmonious society. We believe that economic interdependence, respect for human rights and harmony between people belonging to different religious and ethnic origins are fundamental to building lasting peace, stability and prosperity both at home and in the world. With this approach, Turkey has always been and is at present ready to provide all the assistance to the government and people of Myanmar. Rakhine State is one of the poorest regions in Myanmar. After the events of 2012, the situation has become worse also from a humanitarian and human rights perspective in this state. We hope that a solution can be found which will improve the humanitarian situation, enhance human rights and bring harmony and economic development among all the communities in Rakhine State. In this regard, Turkey is ready to help the people and the government in any way it can.
Turkey and Myanmar have a long history of relations. What are the main issues that stand out?
Although Turkish-Myanmar relations go back two centuries, we opened our first Embassy in Myanmar in March 2012. I am honoured to be the first resident Ambassador of Turkey in this beautiful country. Since that date, I have been trying very hard to develop the relations between our two countries in all fields. I think one of the most important problems that I have encountered here is the fact that people do not have much information about Turkey. I have to admit that also in Turkey Myanmar is a vaguely known country. I think both governments must work to bring the peoples of the two countries together more often. I believe that the promotion of tourism and the increase in business transactions in the future will be instrumental in this regard.
Bilateral trade is small. Do you see this expanding? What are the main areas of trade?
Economic relations between Turkey and Myanmar are well below their potential. Turkey is at present the 17th largest economy in the world. Turkish foreign trade in past years has been around 350-400 billion USD. However, bilateral trade between Turkey and Myanmar was only around 40 million USD last year. Turkey’s imports from Myanmar are mostly textiles and agricultural products, while Turkey is exporting machinery, edible oils, electrical and electronic equipment. I believe that there is much room for expanding Turkish-Myanmar trade and investment.
Are Turkish companies interested in investing in Myanmar? Or is this interest small at the moment?
At present, there are only a handful of Turkish companies operating in Myanmar. Turkish companies need to be more informed about Myanmar and Myanmar companies need to be more informed about Turkey. Once the companies realise the potential, I believe business relations will pick up very quickly. One impetus in this regard will be the start of Turkish Airlines direct flights from Istanbul to Yangon. Turkish Airlines flights will not only connect Myanmar to Turkey, but they will also connect Myanmar to all major cities in the world. As you may already know, Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s leading airlines in terms of the diversity of its destinations. The necessary documents for the legal infrastructure of these flights were signed between the Civil Aviation Organizations of the two countries in 2014. As the ambassador, I am trying very hard to have Turkish Airlines flights start in the near future. We may have the first flight perhaps early next year.
Can you tell us about the humanitarian aid outreach to Myanmar under Turkish aid agencies?
Situated in a disaster-prone geography, Turkey has a strong tradition of responding to those in need. Drawing from its own experiences, Turkey is an ardent advocate of international solidarity and partnership with a view to building a safer world, saving human lives and protecting the environment through a sustainable and collective strategy. With this understanding, Turkey strives to rapidly channel humanitarian assistance to those countries in dire straits, irrespective of race, religion or language. As you may remember Turkey hosted the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 to address humanitarian crises facing our world. Based on humanitarian concerns, Turkey has been providing economic and humanitarian assistance to many parts of Myanmar. Turkey’s humanitarian assistance is determined according to the urgency of the need. Most official humanitarian and development aid that has been provided by Turkey to Myanmar has been channelled through Turkish Coordination and Cooperation Agency (TIKA) and Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD). Also in 2012 and 2013 Turkish Red Crescent has provided humanitarian assistance to Myanmar.
It is hard for us not to ask - what is the situation in Turkey today following the coup attempt?
The developments which unfolded in Turkey on 15 July 2016 was a treacherous coup attempt by a group of plotters in the military, linked to the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO). The plotters tried to overthrow the democratically-elected Government, the President and the constitutional order in Turkey. These plotters opened fire on civilians and murdered democracy defenders on the streets. They attacked the Presidency and bombed the Parliament. They also attempted to assassinate the President.
At the end, they were not successful in their attempt and democracy prevailed in Turkey. As a result of this terrorist coup attempt, 246 Turkish citizens lost their lives and 2185 were wounded.
During the coup attempt on 15th July 2016, it was revealed that FETÖ is a terrorist network that has infiltrated not only into the armed forces but also other state organs. It was understood that the terrorist organisation is trying to take over the legitimate and democratic state regime. Thus it was urgently necessary to take measures to remove from public institutions the people who are members of, or have a relation, connection or contact with this terror organisation.
With this view, following the failed coup attempt, a State of Emergency was declared in Turkey as of 21 July 2016. The State of Emergency allows the removal from public service of the officials who are members of or have links to this terrorist organisation. Also, the State of Emergency allows the government to take action against the companies and media outlets of the terrorist organisation. At present public officials connected to the terror organisation are being removed from public service and legal action is being taken against the companies and media outlets of the terror organisation.
A State of Emergency is a measure envisaged by the Turkish Constitution and regulated by relevant national legislation. The Constitution includes clear provisions on the state of emergency. State of Emergency is also a practice permitted under international human rights law, including European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The State of Emergency has been declared for a period of 90 days. All extraordinary measures will be terminated once the result in the fight against the Fethullah Terrorist Organization is successfully achieved.
Turkey is in Asia but also wants to join the European Union. What are your thoughts on this?
It is true that most of the land mass of Turkey is Asia Minor. However, I should also remind you that a portion of the land mass of Turkey is also in Europe, bordering Greece and Bulgaria. As you may already know, the biggest city in Turkey, Istanbul is located on the Bogazici Strait (Bosporus Strait) which connects Europe to Asia. I think it would not be wrong to say that, geographically and culturally, Turkey is the connecting point of the two continents. Turkey’s role in and relations with Europe goes back many centuries. The Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans and most parts of what is today Eastern Europe for many centuries. Today, Turkey is already part of many European Institutions such as the Council of Europe. Turkey also embraces the fundamental ideas of the European Union such as democracy and the rule of law. Thus, Turkey’s policy of joining the European Union should be evaluated from this perspective.
Turkey faces the burden of refugees from conflicts in Syria and Iraq. What is Turkey's stance on how this problem should be dealt with?
Directly impacted by the situation in Syria, Turkey closely follows the developments in this country. In March 2016 the conflict in Syria entered its sixth year with no sign of abating. The situation in Syria is getting progressively worse. Intensive military operations by the regime and its supporters, particularly in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib, DeyrZor and Daraa, continue to result in heavy civilian casualties and gross human rights violations. Large-scale massacres against civilians continue unabated. The humanitarian suffering has reached unprecedented levels. The death toll has risen to well above 400 thousand. Over half of the population (as of June 2016 13.5 million) are deprived of basic needs. According to UNHCR, at least 7.6 million people are displaced inside Syria and over 4.5 million Syrians fled their country.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Turkey has maintained open doors to the people of Syria without any discrimination. As of June 2016, over 2.7 million Syrians with diverse backgrounds live in Turkey under “temporary protection status” in relation to the “1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees”(AFAD) . The cost for Turkey has been over $ 11 billion for Syrians hosted in Turkey.
Extremist and terrorist groups such as Daesh (ISIS) take root as the ongoing conflict provides a fertile ground for foreign fighters and activities of terrorist organisations. The situation in Syria has also very badly affected certain parts of Iraq where Daesh has taken control.
The threats that Syria poses towards regional and international security and stability will not be eliminated effectively unless the security and stability are reinstated in Syria. The objective of a stable and peaceful Syria can only be achieved through a process of democratic transition that will meet the legitimate demands and aspirations of all Syrians. This process should be owned and led by the Syrians with the support of the international community.
From the onset of the conflict, Turkey has supported and actively contributed to all meaningful efforts for the political solution.
How do you view the arrival of Myanmar's new government under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi?
I think there is much hope and support both in Myanmar as well as abroad with regard the new government in Myanmar. The government has taken office only since 1 April 2016. It is not easy to evaluate the performance of a new government in such a short time. Some important issues still remain. But I can see the determination of the government to achieve democracy, peace, harmony and economic development in this country. In 2012, when my Foreign Minister called me to let me know that I was being appointed as Ambassador to Myanmar, he did not mention the name of the country. He simply told me that I was being appointed to the rising star of South East Asia. I believe that this government has the capacity to raise Myanmar to its full potential and make it a shining star in this region.