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Myanmar reforms irreversible, Thein Sein tells UN

Publication Date : 28-09-2012


Myanmar's top leader assures the world that the radical reforms his country has taken so far are irreversible


Myanmar's top leader assured the world yesterday that the radical reforms his country has taken so far are irreversible, even as the United States announced a day before that it would begin easing a decade-old ban on imports from the South East Asian nation.

In a historic speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday morning in New York, Thein Sein - the first head of state from Myanmar to address the Assembly - signalled his country's readiness to rejoin the international community after decades of isolation. He also urged patience and support for Myanmar as it moved forward "in our own way, and at our own speed".

The president spoke hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed him during their meeting on Wednesday evening of the move to gradually lift the US' last major category of economic sanctions on Myanmar.

"In recognition of the continued progress towards reform and in response to requests from both the government and the opposition, the US is taking the next step in normalising our commercial relationship,"  Clinton told the President, who has spent his 17 months in office overseeing political and economic reforms.

Thein Sein, in New York for a three-day visit that coincides with the tail-end of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's 17-day US tour, said the people of Myanmar were grateful.

Last week, Ms Suu Kyi, in public talks, voiced support for ending all sanctions against Myanmar. Thein Sein, in his speech, said he was proud of the recognition she has received. It was the first time a Myanmar leader has mentioned the once-imprisoned democracy icon at the UN.

A permanent scrapping of the import ban will need action by the US Congress, an unlikely prospect less than two months from the US presidential election. But the Obama administration could act first by issuing executive orders to temporarily and partially waive the ban, said experts. The process could still take some months.

"Out of all the different sanctions imposed, the import ban did the most damage to the economy and cost the most jobs for ordinary people. At a time when the government is extremely keen to create jobs and boost the economy, this would be extremely beneficial, especially for the textile sector," Thant Myint-U, an adviser to Thein Sein, told The Straits Times from Yangon.

Added Murray Hiebert of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies: "Struggling garment factories in Myanmar will now be able to export to the US, allowing them to boost production and create new jobs."

Before the ban, the US imported small quantities of hardwood, gems and garments from Myanmar.

In a speech that touted his government's achievements, underscored his commitment to reforms, and laid out the challenges ahead, Thein Sein told world leaders that Myanmar was now "moving from an authoritarian system to a democratic one".

His government's early efforts, including freeing political prisoners, holding by-elections and lifting media censorship, were "helping to create a political process that is more inclusive, more representative, and more accountable".

He praised Myanmar's political opposition for their tolerance and willingness to compromise. He also said he was working to finally end decades of ethnic conflict.

Although reforms have brought some openness, Myanmar still faces complex challenges, he said, appealing to the international community for help. "We need an end to all sanctions...We are not looking for hand-outs, but for new partnerships," he said.


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