Burma’s president reaffirms army role

Burma’s nominally-civilian president sought to reaffirm the status of the country’s military on Wednesday, praising the army and the former junta for recent political reform gestures.

On the country’s independence day former general Thein Sein stressed the importance of Burma’s “Tatmadaw” military, which relinquished direct control over the impoverished nation last year after controversial elections.

“It was the Tatmadaw that directed the nation towards building a peaceful, modern and developed democratic one,” he said in a message read by Vice President Sai Mauk Kham to mark the commemoration of independence from Britain.

The army “took step-by-step measures for writing a constitution in order to practise multiparty democracy”, he added.

Thein Sein has adopted a more reformist tone since taking office in March, but the extent of change in the country remains unclear.

Democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy held its own event in Yangon, where she told supporters that with their efforts the country would become democratic “very soon”.

“We now have the opportunity to attain the peace that we have failed to get for generations,” said the Nobel laureate, who has vowed to run in an April 1 by-election and could be swept into the army-dominated parliament as a result.

“We must use this chance for the benefit of the people. If we proceed with this attitude, our country will soon become a democratic state which can guarantee peace and human rights,” she said, according to an NLD statement which sidestepped criticism of the army.

The anniversary of Burma’s independence in 1948 has traditionally been used by the ruling generals to warn of dangers posed by other nations and to rail against “evil colonialism”.

In remarks mirroring those made by junta strongman Than Shwe in previous years, Burma’s new leader credited soldiers for uniting the country, which has suffered decades of civil war between the military and various armed ethnic rebel groups.

He insisted the army will remain an essential pillar of the country.

“A Tatmadaw of international standard is required for national defence,” said his statement, delivered to a crowd of around 3 000 ministers and civil servants gathered in the capital Naypyidaw.

Thein Sein blamed “disturbances” in 1988 — the year of a failed student uprising that saw the emergence of Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement — for leaving the country in “ruin”.

He did not mention the economically disastrous rule of military dictator Ne Win in the preceding decades.

But there were elements of the more reformist tone that has marked his leadership, which has included dialogue with Suu Kyi, suspending an unpopular Chinese-backed mega dam and reaching out to the international community.

“Burma is marching towards a new modern, developed nation enlisting the strength of human resources like intellectuals,” he said.

Nonetheless the government this week disappointed observers and the opposition when it announced a cut to jail terms for all inmates but failed to issue a much-anticipated amnesty for political prisoners.

Washington said Tuesday’s decision fell short of the level of reform expected by the United States to justify a reward in return.

“Even one political prisoner is one political prisoner too many,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

The state mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar, which referred to the junta as “authoritarian” on Tuesday, ran the president’s statement in full.

It also published a comment piece insisting the new leaders would “never turn back” from reforms.

“Hence, the Burma government can daringly disclose that there is no way to deviate from its democratic transition,” it said. — AFP

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