United Nations: Myanmar’s president on Thursday said achieving stability and rule of law would prevent “any reversal” in reforms that are helping his Southeast Asian nation emerge from decades of authoritarianism, poverty and isolation.
In speeches in New York, President Thein Sein appealed for international support for sweeping political and economic changes in Myanmar and praised opposition leader and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as a “good colleague” who would help complete the country’s democratic transition.
“As long as there is political stability and rule of law, I don’t think there will be any reversal,” he told the Asia Society in New York.
He earlier told the UN General Assembly that changes implemented in his 18 months in office— the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, fair by-elections, ending media censorship – have created “a new political culture of patience and dialogue.”
The 67-year-old former general and former military junta member has emerged as the unlikely catalyst for a wave of reforms that were unthinkable a year ago in the former British colony also known as Burma.
But Thein Sein also credited Suu Kyi – the 1991 Nobel laureate whose whirlwind tour of the United States in many eyes upstaged the president – with playing a key role in the changes that have helped Myanmar shed its pariah status.
“She has been a good colleague,” he said of Suu Kyi, who held what Burmese-language media said was a friendly meeting earlier this week on the sidelines of the U.N. sessions.
“I’m sure she will do whatever she can in order to make the reform process complete,” said Thein Sein when asked what he though the future held for Suu Kyi, who was elected to Myanmar’s parliament in April after 17 years under house arrest.
Thein Sein’s reformist, quasi-civilian government took office in March 2011, ending five decades of military rule in Myanmar and ushering in broad changes.
“To complete this process, we certainly need the understanding and support from the United Nations and its member states, the international community as a whole and, last but not least, the people of Myanmar,” Thein Sein added.
He said Myanmar’s political and economic reforms, as well as its efforts to wind down decades-old wars with ethnic groups, justify viewing the country in a new light.
“At the same time, it is equally important that Myanmar should be viewed from a different and new perspective,” Thein Sein said.
Myanmar’s changes have drawn positive responses from the United States and the European Union, which began unwinding economic sanctions that barred most trade and investment in the country and upgrading diplomatic relations.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Thein Sein that the United States would take further steps to ease the U.S. ban on imports from Myanmar, a move that would help his government draw investment and create jobs for the country’s 60 million people.
Clinton’s move was praised by proponents of deepening U.S. relations with Myanmar, which has moved close to giant neighbor China during its decades of isolation, but some activists warned against removing all leverage on the government.
“The situation on the ground does not justify the lifting of all sanctions,” said the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
The Washington-based advocacy group said 300 political prisoners remain incarcerated and that some elements of Myanmar’s military were undermining ceasefires the government signed with ethnic groups in border areas.
Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly that of Myanmar’s 11 major ethnic conflicts, the government has signed ceasefire agreements with 10 armed groups and was committed to pursuing peace talks in the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army that erupted again in June 2011.
“We believe that cessation of all armed conflicts (is) a prerequisite for the building of genuine democracy,” he said.
At the Asia Society, Thein Sein said there was still much work to do to bring the various armed ethnic resistance groups that have been fighting the central government for decades into a national reconciliation process.
“From the government side we have ordered our troops to stop fighting with the Kachin, but our Kachin colleagues have not reciprocated,” he said. “We will have to find a way to reconcile our differences.”
Clinton’s New York meeting on Wednesday with Thein Sein – their third face-to-face encounter in less than a year – came a week after she met Suu Kyi in Washington, where the Nobel Peace laureate was awarded the highest congressional Medal of Honor.
Suu Kyi gave a speech in Boston on Thursday and was due to wind up a 17-day US tour in San Francisco on the weekend.