Burma’s Thein Sein says military ‘will always have a special place’ in government


Myanmar President Thein Sein attends a town hall event at the Voice of America in Washington May 19, 2013. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
May 19, 2013

The military that ran Burma for decades will continue to play a major role in the country, the former Burmese general who has presided over the transformation of a nation that only three years ago was considered one of the world’s most repressive said Sunday.

The army has a proud history in Burma and “will always have a special place” in government, Burmese President Thein Sein said in an interview Sunday with The Washington Post, on the eve of a White House meeting with President Obama.

Thein Sein dismissed as “pure fabrication” the allegation from human rights monitors that the Burmese 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 Burma’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.

In the lengthy interview, Thein Sein made little attempt to promote a picture of vigorous reform in Burma, also known as Myanmar, 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 Burma’s brutal past.

Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma when he met with Thein Sein in Rangoon in November. The quick follow-up invitation to Washington reflects both U.S. hopes and worries about progress in Burma, 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.

The junta’s reasons for making the highly unusual choice to voluntarily relinquish absolute rule remain mysterious. There was no revolution, no Arab Spring, no civil war. The desperate state of the heavily sanctioned economy was certainly a big factor, but not the only one. Other nations, such as North Korea and Zimbabwe, muddle along under crushing sanctions and have even taken them as a badge of honor.

Thein Sein shed little light on the decision, saying as he has in the past that the former government had a long-standing road map for democracy and was doing the people’s will.

Burma’s transformation could still go off course, as its newfound U.S. backers well know. With mostly bad news or unfinished business greeting Obama overseas these days, the administration wants to help Burma take practical economic and political steps that would make a reversal less likely, American officials said.

Obama has said that he has confidence in Thein Sein, whose international stock is rising despite doubts about whether he has the authority to carry out some of the changes he has promised.

Thein Sein has forged a cautious partnership with Suu Kyi, whose election to the legislature last year was not blocked by the government. Her party could win national elections in 2015, and how Thein Sein’s government handles numerous structural changes before the vote will be a key test of its commitment to democracy. Suu Kyi would be barred from the presidency under the constitution, because her children hold foreign citizenship.

“That initial euphoria, that honeymoon period, is starting to wear off,” a senior Obama administration official said before Thein Sein’s arrival. “This is a check-in meeting,” to cement democratic advances that Thein Sein has made, the official said, and to apply gentle pressure for more changes. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline U.S. goals frankly.

Thein Sein is receiving the symbolic embrace of a White House welcome and will be feted by eager U.S. businesses at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. His government’s mixed success in expanding democratic and economic gains will be highlighted, along with Burma’s untapped economic potential.

Although it remains one of the world’s poorest nations, Burma, squeezed between India and China and rich in natural resources, presents new energy opportunities, new markets for American-made cars and other products, and new possibilities for low-cost manufacturing. There is also the lure of a new business-friendly perch for U.S. companies and banks seeking access to China’s vast market.

Burma has stepped back from decades of tight economic and political union with China, offering a diplomatic opening for greater U.S. leverage in Southeast Asia. One of Thein Sein’s first acts as president was to cancel a large Chinese hydroelectric project in Burma. The United States sent a full ambassador to Burma last year for the first time in 22 years.

Thein Sein’s enormous challenges at home are likely to receive greater public scrutiny during this visit, including the human rights concerns that have led rights groups to accuse the United States of moving too fast. Many rights advocates were disappointed by Obama’s slim mention of those concerns during his November visit to Burma.

Thein Sein’s government stands accused of ignoring or even abetting ethnic purges and other human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority.

In the interview, Thein Sein said the Rohingya, who have lived in Burma for generations, are not a native population. He would not say whether he thinks they deserve citizenship, but he said it is possible if individual Rohingya meet the terms for naturalized citizenship under a 1982 law.

“There are no Rohingya among the races” in Burma, Thein Sein said. “We only have Bengalis who were brought for farming” during British rule.

He pledged to prosecute anyone persecuting Rohingya but gave no specifics.

Burma is riven by persistent ethnic conflicts that were often kept in check by the brutal military rulers. The newfound freedom of movement and the press, and the availability of previously unknown commercial goods such as cellphones, in Rangoon remain scarce or nonexistent in the poor countryside.

Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, but hundreds remain, and the feeble judicial system that allowed so many to be locked away is largely unchanged. The military, including many of the same generals who were responsible for systemic abuses, remains a shadowy and unpredictable influence.

The Obama administration has lifted most commercial sanctions on Burma, in part because of lobbying from U.S. businesses that were put at a disadvantage when the European Union did away with all restrictions on Burma except an arms embargo.

But the White House recently opted to leave in place sanctions against specific Burmese individuals and business leaders connected to the old military government.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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