Myanmar President Thein Sein saluted top dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech to the United Nations that dwelled on the difficulties facing his nation as it is “ushering in a new era” of democratic rule.
As the first Myanmar head of state to address the UN General Assembly, Thein Sein acknowledged Suu Kyi to an audience of world leaders and said that “the transformation process” in Myanmar “would be a complex and delicate one that requires patience.”
“As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy,” he said in New York yesterday.
Myanmar’s peaceful shift to democracy followed bloody uprisings in the Arab world last year that felled authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Since taking office last year, Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners and held talks with Suu Kyi, who won a seat in Parliament in April by-elections and is also in the U.S. on a 17-day tour.
“They are on the same page now and they want to move ahead,” Thaung Tun, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said of Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. “If they work together, they can bring in investment and make a difference to the lives of the people.”
While Democratic reforms have prompted Western nations to ease sanctions and led businesses to consider investing in Myanmar, thornier issues still left to untangle include the plight of ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya Muslims.
The president devoted much of his speech to the obstacles.
“While the government is resolutely pursuing political, social and economic reforms, some unfortunate and unexpected issues have come up in our way,” Thein Sein said.
He said his government would respect the human rights of all people as the nation seeks a solution to unrest in a border area with Bangladesh, where fighting between Muslim Rohingyas and local Buddhists has killed about 90 people and displaced more than 70,000 others. UN official Ashok Nigam called on authorities to resolve citizenship issues regarding the Rohingyas at a meeting in Myanmar earlier this week.
“The issue at hand cannot be solved overnight,” Thein Sein said. “It will be resolved by taking short-term and long-term measures through a multi-faceted approach taking into account political, economic and social aspects.”
Thein Sein also pledged to make peace with rebel armies among the country’s ethnic minority groups, particularly the Kachin Independence Army. Noting that the government signed 10 cease-fires with ethnic minority armies so far, he said “peace negotiations will then continue to reach a final peace agreement that would completely end the armed hostilities.”
Thein Sein previously addressed the General Assembly in 2009 as prime minister, when he served as the public face of a military junta headed by Than Shwe. He took full control following 2010 elections that were boycotted by Suu Kyi’s party and denounced as a sham by the U.S. and European nations.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent 15 years under house arrest, last week told reporters that she shared a “common goal” with Thein Sein.
“I am happy that sanctions are now being lifted,” she said on Sept. 21. “It is time now that the Burmese people took responsibility for their democratization of the country.”
In his speech, Thein Sein highlighted moves to ease restrictions on Internet freedom and allow people to organize, including the formation of independent trade unions. The U.S. and European Union have eased sanctions on Myanmar in recent months, prompting companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Visa Inc. to seek a presence in the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week said the U.S. would ease a ban on imports in place since 2003. The move follows an announcement by President Barack Obama in July to allow new investments in Myanmar for the first time in 15 years.
Total trade last year between the U.S. and Myanmar reached $49 million, all in exports, an amount equivalent to half what America trades with neighboring Thailand in a single day, government statistics show. A decade ago, U.S.-Myanmar commerce was seven times greater.
Myanmar’s economy may grow as much as 8 percent annually if policy makers keep prices under control, increase trade and attract investment, the Asian Development Bank said last month. About a quarter of the population has access to electricity, while mobile-phone and Internet usage is among the lowest in Southeast Asia, the ADB said.
“Myanmar is making progress on her democratic path,” Thein Sein said. “But this has not been an easy task.”