Myanmar’s President Thein Sein said Wednesday that the military will remain a key component in politics even as the country embraces reforms.
The general-turned-reformer indicated that any reduced role for the military, which committed blatant human rights abuses during its rule over five decades until 2012, will depend on whether the government can forge permanent peace with armed rebel groups, and on public acceptance of democracy.
“Our Armed Forces will continue to play a role in our democratic transition,” said Thein Sein, whose nominally-civilian government took over in 2012 after landmark elections and launched unprecedented political and economic reforms that resulted in the withdrawal of international sanctions on the once-pariah country.
“There is also the need for our Armed Forces to continue to be included at the political negotiation tables in finding solutions to our political issues,” he said in a speech to parliament marking three years of his government this week.
“We will be able to steadily reduce the role of our Armed Forces as we mature in democracy and if there is progress in our peace-building efforts,” he said.
The government expects to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the country’s ethnic armed groups next month, the state-owned New Light of Myanmar reported this week.
The two sides are continuing to work on a cease-fire agreement framework.
“Past history and current world affairs have shown us that it is of utmost importance for small countries like ours to safeguard our sovereignty and to rely on our own resources,” Thein Sein said.
“In this regard, it is vital that our Armed Forces is a modern and strong one in order to defend and secure our country.“
Myanmar's powerful military continues to enjoy sweeping powers under the constitution and has a mandatory 25 percent control of parliament.
Together, the military and Thein Sein’s military-backed ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) control more than 80 percent of parliament, eclipsing the 75 percent support required for a constitutional amendment in the legislature.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, commenting on Thein Sein’s speech, said the military’s role is to support a political system that the people prefer.
“I’d rather see the army as professionals who the people love. [And] the peace process can be solved with political means,” said the Nobel laureate who has been a fierce critic of the military’s extensive powers.
Thein Sein also referred to the parliamentary democratic system practiced in Myanmar before the military junta took control of the country in 1962, saying lessons should be learned from that period.
He particularly cited armed conflicts which erupted at that time between the government and ethnic groups seeking greater powers.
“In the past our country had practiced a parliamentary system of governance, and it will not be pertinent to reintroduce a similar system of governance today,” he said.
“We must learn lessons from our past history that conflicts based on sectarian views and ideology had led to long-term armed insurgency, which had hampered the development of the country."
Nyan Win, spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said Thein Sein had distorted “historical facts.”
“Nothing happened during the parliamentary system of governance. Everything happened during the military junta era. He is saying the opposite of history,” Nyan Win said.
He slammed the Thein Sein administration for dragging its feet on calls to amend the military-written constitution, which currently bars Aung San Suu Kyi from making a bid for the presidency because her sons are foreign citizens.
Thein Sein cautioned in his speech that any move to revamp the constitution should be done in a “careful and delicate” manner.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has called for amendments to the constitution before the 2015 elections, which she wants to contest.
After soliciting proposals from the public last year, a 31-member constitutional amendment implementation committee within parliament has been charged with completing a review of possible charter changes at least six months before next year’s polls.
Thein Sein agreed that the constitution should be amended “to be in full conformity with democratic norms and values.”
“In this regard, I would like to urge everyone involved in the constitutional amendment process to wisely use their vision, experience and genuine goodwill and take careful and delicate actions in amending the constitution,” he said.
“Only with their right choice and action will we be able to create favorable political climate and avoid crisis.”
Reported by Kyaw Kwin Oo and Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.