WASHINGTON – The military that ran Myanmar for decades will continue to play a major role in the country, said the former general who has presided over the transformation of a nation that only three years ago was considered one of the world’s most repressive.
The army has a proud history in Myanmar and will always have a special place in government, Myanmarese President Thein Sein said Sunday in an interview with the Washington Post on the eve of a White House meeting today with President Obama.
Thein Sein dismissed as pure fabrication the allegation from human rights monitors that the Myanmarese army condones or even participates in ethnic pogroms against the nation’s Muslim minority. The army is more disciplined than normal citizens, because they have to abide by military rules, he said through an interpreter.
Thein Sein said it is mostly up to Myanmar’s parliament to see through numerous reforms sought by the United States and other nervous backers of the experiment in democracy. For example, he said he has no direct say in, or independent opinion on, whether Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi should be eligible for the presidency in two years.
Thein Sein made little attempt to promote a picture of vigorous reform in Myanmar, also known as Burma, or to sell himself as the pivotal leader who will turn the former prison state into a democracy.
Continued economic sanctions are an obstacle, and they indirectly hurt the Myanmar people, he said, but he indicated that he would not press the issue forcefully with Obama.
We are fully aware the sanctions are imposed for various reasons, Thein Sein said.
It was the closest that he got to commenting on Myanmar’s brutal past.
Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar when he met with Thein Sein in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, in November. The quick follow-up invitation to Washington reflects both U.S. hopes and worries about progress in Myanmar, where the rapid expansion of political and economic freedom marks a rare and unexpected foreign policy success for Obama.
I will explain about the democratic path we are on and the challenges and obstacles, Thein Sein said. I will ask the United States to assist.
Thein Sein, 68, is a former associate of the infamous junta leader Than Shwe who was picked from relative obscurity to become prime minister in 2007 and then the face of the country’s transition to civilian rule in 2011.