WASHINGTON – The military that ran Myanmar for decades will continue to play a major role in the country, 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 said Sunday.
The army has a proud history in Myanmar and “will always have a special place” in government, Myanmar President Thein Sein said in an interview Sunday, on the eve of a White House meeting with President Barack 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.
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.
In the interview, 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 followup 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.
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. 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.
Thein Sein’s challenges at home are likely to receive greater public scrutiny during this visit. Thein Sein’s government stands accused of ignoring or even abetting ethnic purges and other human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Thein Sein said the Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar 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 Myanmar, Thein Sein said. “We only have Bengalis who were brought for farming” during British rule.