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November 21, 2011

Burmese President Welcomes US Engagement

Burma's President Thein Sein has welcomed engagement by the United States and pledged to work with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The president also acknowledged the demand for more reforms but refused to admit his government jails political prisoners.

In his first news conference since becoming President of Burma in March, Thein Sein welcomed President Barack Obama’s plan to send the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on an official visit next month.

Speaking on the sidelines of meetings of the Association of Southeast Nations in Bali, Indonesia, he told journalists Saturday the visit would be what he called a blessing for his country.

He said President Obama acknowledged political developments in Burma. On the other hand, he added, Mr. Obama said what is happening in Burma is not perfect yet. He says Mr. Obama encouraged Burma to do more to reform and that the U.S. will watch closely to monitor the situation.

ASEAN leaders at the summit voted to allow Burma to host the annual meetings in 2014 after previously skipping it because of its human rights record.

Clinton’s trip will be the highest level visit to Burma by a U.S. official in half a century and comes after the military-backed government made a series of steps to liberalize.

Authorities relaxed their tight grip on the media, allowed labor unions, suspended an unpopular China-backed hydropower dam, released over 200 political prisoners and held direct meetings with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) last week announced they would re-enter politics in upcoming by-elections.

Kelley Currie researches human rights and democracy in Burma for the Project 2049 Institute in Washington D.C. She says the NLD’s participation in elections brings credibility to the government’s claims to reform.

“It’s very significant and it shows her level of support for what’s going on with the regime and that she has a certain level of confidence in this process, Currie says. "I don’t think she would put herself and her party out there if she didn’t have some degree of confidence that they were going be given the opportunity to compete, fairly. And, I think that’s something that the United States and other countries that support democratization in Burma should be really looking at carefully.”

But Currie and other analysts caution the steps made so far could be reversed as they have been in the past and that the government’s actions must be watched closely.

They also point out there are still hundreds of political prisoners in jail in Burma. Many of them were involved in democracy protests that were brutally crushed by the military.

President Thein Sein, himself a former general, refuses to acknowledge any political prisoners.

He says they have released almost 20,000 prisoners as part of general amnesties. However, he says they do not accept that any of them were prisoners of conscience. He says they were arrested and sentenced because they breached existing laws.

President Thein Sein’s government took office in March after nationwide elections that were criticized as a sham designed to keep the military in power.

Even before the vote, the military-drafted constitution guaranteed it a quarter of all seats in parliament.

David Steinberg, a Burma analyst at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., says the military has no intention of giving up power but could lose its grip like past military governments in Indonesia and South Korea.

“The problem is a basic one and that is all the avenues of social mobility in that society are controlled by the military and when that changes, and it will take basically a generation to change, so that you can rise through politics, through economics, through education, through civil society, when these things happen then the role of the military becomes less.”

Steinberg says there is a growing realization in Burma that decades of military rule have turned it from one of the richest countries in the region to the poorest.

He says hosting ASEAN in 2014 will serve to deepen internal pressures to continue reforms.