Myanmar president says no turning back on reforms

January 20, 2012 - 5:45 AM
Myanmar Politics

Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, center, leaves the Yangon District Election Commission after submitting a candidates' list of her National League for Democracy for the upcoming parliamentary by-election on Wednesday, Jan.18, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. Suu Kyi registered to run for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Yangon where villagers' livelihoods were devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president has told a U.S. newspaper that his country's democratic reforms are irreversible, as he urged the West to lift sanctions. He even dangled the possibility of giving opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a Cabinet post.

"We are on the right track to democracy," President Thein Sein said in the interview with The Washington Post published Friday, his first with Western media. "Because we are on the right track, we can only move forward, and we don't have any intention to draw back."

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy responded to the newspaper report by saying it would be too early for the U.S. and its allies to lift economic sanctions because the reforms aren't complete yet. It also welcomed the notion of a Cabinet post for Suu Kyi, while saying it was too early to discuss the matter.

Thein Sein's government took office in March, ending a half century of military rule. Since then, it has rolled out reforms at a pace that has surprised even Myanmar's staunchest critics.

Thein Sein said he felt his government had met the West's conditions for lifting sanctions by releasing many political prisoners, scheduling parliamentary elections for April 1 and allowing Suu Kyi among others to participate.

"What is needed from the Western countries is for them to do their part," he said.

Thein Sein repeatedly called for the lifting of severe economic sanctions that the U.S., European Union and others imposed while Myanmar was under military rule. He said the sanctions hurt the people of Myanmar much more than the former junta leaders and were holding back the country's economic progress.

The U.S. and European Union have praised the recent reforms but said they will monitor how the April vote is conducted, among other considerations, before revising sanctions.

Suu Kyi has said she will personally contest the elections, a historic event that could usher the Nobel laureate and former political prisoner into her first parliamentary seat.

"If the people vote for her, she will be elected and become a member of Parliament. I am sure that the Parliament will warmly welcome her. This is our plan," Thein Sein said.

Asked if he would like to see Suu Kyi in his government, Thein Sein replied: "If one has been appointed or agreed on by the Parliament, we will have to accept that she becomes a Cabinet minister."

Nyan Win, the spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said it was premature to speak of a Cabinet post but that Suu Kyi "is a very capable leader and she could take any leading position." He also said it was too early to lift sanctions.

"We acknowledge that reforms have been made in the country and we welcome the reforms. However, we don't consider the reforms complete yet," Nyan Win said.

After a recent visit to Myanmar, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said he would take his cue on lifting sanctions from Suu Kyi. He said a key test would be free and fair conduct of April 1 elections. He also sought more moves to end ethnic violence, and for Myanmar to discontinue its relationship with North Korea, which is suspected to have sold it missiles in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Some in the U.S. Congress maintain that there is ongoing nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

Thein Sein said the two countries have diplomatic relations but denied any military ties with North Korea.

"These are only allegations," he said. "We don't have any nuclear or weapons cooperation with (North Korea)."

Thein Sein said that the government was committed to ending the country's long-running ethnic conflicts and was currently communicating with all armed ethnic groups. Cease-fire pacts have been signed with some, including the Karen.

"Soon we will try to achieve an eternal peace in country. However, this will require time," he said.