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Myanmar's army can't be left behind: Thein Sein

Publication Date : 12-07-2012


Myanmar's military has a much reduced role in now, but cannot be 'left behind' by moves towards democratic reforms, President Thein Sein says


Myanmar's military has a much reduced role in the government now, but cannot be "left behind" by moves towards democratic reforms, President Thein Sein has said.

In a 90-minute interview on Tuesday with The Straits Times, the reformist president said Senior General Than Shwe, the former supremo, remains a nationally respected figure, but no longer has a role in government.

"This is an armed forces that the country has had to rely on for a very long time for security and to meet external threats," he said.

"So, it is important at this time that they are not left behind entirely. They have a limited role within the Constitution. But they are not involved in any way in the direct affairs of government or government policy."

The army has 25 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for it. Also, the commander-in-chief picks three ministers - for home, defence and border affairs.

While critics of the government often warn of the army taking charge of the country again, thus far, the military has been supportive of the President's reforms and peace efforts.

"We can't yet say this is a stable and peaceful country," Thein Sein said.

"We want very much to have lasting peace, but exactly how the coming years will work out in terms of our efforts to have lasting peace remains uncertain."

Addressing the issue of ethnic conflicts in the country's border areas, he spoke about his own change of perspective in the transition from military general to prime minister and, finally, to president, just over a year ago.

He now sees armed ethnic groups, which he spent half his adult life fighting, as "members of the same family under one roof".

While as a soldier he fought the armed ethnic groups, as president he no longer sees them as the enemy, but as part of the solution to the decades-long conflicts that have dogged Myanmar.

Despite differences of opinion in Myanmar, one of the key aspirations of the people across the ethnically diverse country is to live in peace and stability, he said.

"There can't be peace without democracy, and there can't be democracy without peace."

He added that he is optimistic over negotiations with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Kachin state - where fighting between government troops and the KIA has displaced tens of thousands of people, some of whom are living in squalid camps across the border in China's Yunnan province. "We have to be patient; there are a lot of local issues that need to be addressed. But I'm optimistic we will be able to reach an agreement," he said.

Addressing the contentious issue of political prisoners, he said recent releases were done after a "rigorous review", and the government wanted to "ensure we are not releasing people who are genuinely guilty of serious felonies, violent felonies, murders, narcotics trafficking and terrorism'.

Some 650 political prisoners have been freed by the government since it took office in March. Last week, a general amnesty included another 23.

More people continue to be held on political grounds, but the number is disputed even by rights groups and political parties.

The process of releasing prisoners will continue, he indicated.

"If it is discovered that there are people who do not fall under any of these criteria, and are there simply because of their political convictions, they will be released."

He called on the West to decisively lift sanctions to unblock foreign investment and aid, saying: "The problem right now is... we really need investments, we need loans to help to move the economy forward, (but) there are still restrictions from many Western countries in terms of our ability to do this.

"It's extremely important that (financial and other economic) sanctions be lifted to make possible the sort of trade and investments the country desperately needs at this time."


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