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Burma’s president has rejected criticism that his government has stalled on crucial reforms and has defended the powerful army’s hold over politics.
Thein Sein, a former general who has run Burma [Myanmar] since 2011 when the junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government after decades of brutal rule, insisted his country was on the path towards genuine democracy.
“Our reform process is going step by step. There is no backsliding. We are now on the track towards democracy, but going at a steady pace,” he said in a BBC interview broadcast on Friday.
He also said the army needed to be “involved in national politics” and refused to commit himself to any specific timetable on when that political role might be reduced.
Under the country’s constitution, the armed forces still retain a quarter of the seats in parliament and some key cabinet posts, giving the country’s generals an effective veto on policy.
“It would be rather difficult to give a timeframe for reducing this role,” Thein Sein said.
“But I can assure you that as we mature in democracy in our country the role of the military in parliament will reduce gradually,” he added.
His comments come ahead of crucial polls slated for November, which are being closely watched as a litmus test for whether the nation’s leaders have truly turned their backs their authoritarian past.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by veteran democracy campaigner Aung San Su Kyi, has called on the military to reduce their powerful hold over Burma’s politics.
Early in his tenure Thein Sein oversaw major reforms that have lured foreign investment back into the isolated nation. But some observers fear his initial enthusiasm has stalled.
The NLD is expected to win this year’s elections if polls are free and fair.
But Suu Kyi cannot stand for the presidency because a clause in the constitution bans those with a foreign spouse or children. Her two sons are British, as was her late husband.
In the interview, Thein Sein defended the clause given Burma is sandwiched between India and China.
“The leaders of our country have always had to safeguard our sovereignty and integrity, otherwise our country would be dominated by these bigger ones,” he said.
“These concerns were considered and drafted into our Constitution.”