The exclusive interview with Thein Sein — conducted Tuesday at his ornate presidential office in Naypyidaw by Lally Weymouth, senior associate editor for The Washington Post — offered a rare glimpse of Burma’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 United States 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, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to potentially join the government as a member of parliament. He did not rule out the possibility that, someday, she might even join the cabinet.
“What is needed from the Western countries 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, Burma 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 Burma 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. He himself is an army man, so I assume there must be considerable support for him in military circles. But that is just an assumption.”
Burma’s accelerating reforms have been embraced by the Obama administration. In November, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Burma, the first such visit there since the military took over the government in 1962.
Last week, Obama announced that he would appoint an ambassador to repair diplomatic ties with Burma, also known as Myanmar.
U.S. officials say they are juggling their efforts to reward Burma’s reforms even as they watch and wait for continued progress. The administration needs to consult with several members of Congress who have only recently started making trips to Burma to assess the situation. Congressional approval on sanctions will likely take time.