Myanmar president vows more democratic reform

Associated Press
Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers his speech at Parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Thursday, March. 1, 2012. Sein said Thursday that his government will build on the sweeping reforms it has begun over the last year, and will work hard to convince skeptics at home and abroad that it is truly committed to democratic change. (AP Photo)
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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar President Thein Sein said Thursday his government will build on the sweeping reforms it began last year and will work hard to convince skeptics at home and abroad that it is truly committed to democratic change.

His speech to Parliament came nearly one year after he took office as head of a nominally civilian government that replaced a long-ruling military junta but remains dominated by retired military officials following elections widely regarded as neither free nor fair.

Since then, Thein Sein has overseen a wave of dramatic change that has shocked even some of the Southeast Asian nation's fiercest critics. Those changes include freeing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with armed rebel groups, easing restrictions on the press and opening a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"There are many more steps to be taken," Thein Sein told lawmakers in the capital, Naypyitaw. "We have to continue to work hard, as there are many people within and outside the country who are skeptical and suspicious of our government."

Thein Sein said those steps include strengthening the rule of law, boosting private businesses and improving the impoverished country's basic infrastructure, which lags far behind much of the rest of Asia.

The army ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for nearly half a century, turning it into a pariah state while jailing thousands of critics and confining Suu Kyi to 15 years of house arrest.

Thein Sein, who previously was the junta's prime minister, seemed to address skepticism that the military was fully behind his reforms. There has been speculation that he represents only a more liberal faction in a military that long took a hard line toward dissent. The 2007 constitution, drafted under army guidance, ensures the military has the decisive voice in government — it automatically holds one-quarter of the seats in Parliament — and is in a position to reverse change.

"There is no hard-liners camp or soft-liners camp in our government. Except for some difference in administration, depending on individual personality, attitude and behavior of the person, we are implementing our duties in strict adherence with the government policy," Thein Sein said.

The U.S. and European Union have praised Myanmar's progress but say they will be closely watching how an April by-election is conducted before deciding whether to lift sanctions imposed during military rule. Human Rights Watch says that despite the reforms and multiple cease-fires reached with ethnic insurgents, the military is still abusing civilians, subjecting them to forced labor and sexual abuse.

Suu Kyi's political party is running for all 48 seats being contested, and she is likely to win a seat of her own, giving her a voice in government for the first time. But the vast majority of seats are already filled, and the legislature will continue to be dominated by military appointees and ruling party officials.

Suu Kyi has said she fears the military could undo the reforms, but has confidence in Thein Sein.

"I think that the president is perfectly sincere when he said that he wanted to bring true democracy to Burma and he wanted to make all efforts possible toward achieving it," she told a visiting European Union delegation Wednesday. Burma is the old name for Myanmar and generally preferred by its pro-democracy movement.

Thein Sein said he was encouraged to see many political forces participating in the political process, apparently referring to Suu Kyi and her opposition party. And he acknowledged that life had not been easy under past regimes.

"Our people have suffered under various governments and different systems and the people will judge our government based on its actual achievements," he said.

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