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Myanmar president promises lasting change

Myanmar’s president sketched a vision of gradual progress toward democracy for his isolated and authoritarian nation in his first extensive interview with a US journalist, saying that the military will retain a strong role in government even as it welcomes opposition figures into parliament.

world Updated: Jan 21, 2012 00:33 IST
William Wan

Myanmar’s president sketched a vision of gradual progress toward democracy for his isolated and authoritarian nation in his first extensive interview with a US journalist, saying that the military will retain a strong role in government even as it welcomes opposition figures into parliament.

“My message is that we are on the right track to democracy,” President Thein Sein said. “Because we are on the right track, we can only move forward, and we don’t have any intention to draw back.”

The exclusive interview with Thein Sein — conducted Tuesday at his ornate presidential office in Naypyidaw by Lally Weymouth for The Washington Post — offered a rare glimpse of Myanmar’s reclusive leadership and the soft-spoken, bespectacled former general at its head. Thein Sein used the interview to make a direct, public case that the US and other nations should lift long-standing economic sanctions that he said hurt the southeast Asian nation’s 54 million people and now threaten to hold back economic progress.

He said his government already had complied with several Western demands — including freeing most political prisoners, scheduling elections in April and allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to potentially join the government as a member of parliament.

He did not rule out the possibility that, someday, she might be in the cabinet.

“What is needed from the West is for them to do their part,” Thein Sein said.

Long known for its bounty of natural resources such as gold, natural gas and lumber, Myanmar now lags far behind most of its Asian peers in poverty rates, education levels and infrastructure.

It has been ravaged by decades of civil war, corruption, brutal rule by a succession of military leaders and bloody repression of democracy activists.

Many critics of the government say they believe that sanctions played a role in spurring political reforms within Myanmar and its unexpectedly warm outreach to the West in recent months.

Suu Kyi, in a separate interview with Weymouth on Wednesday, said she was unconvinced that Western nations should lift sanctions. “Engage and lift sanctions when they think the time is right,” she said.

Yet Suu Kyi spoke highly of Thein Sein. “I believe he sincerely wants reform. But he is not the only one in government,” she said. “I don’t know how much support he has within the army.”

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.
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