UNITED NATIONS — Myanmar’s president Thursday said his country has taken irreversible steps toward democracy as he paid unprecedented public tribute to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, describing her as crucial to political reforms.
President Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly that the country also known as Burma is leaving behind five decades of authoritarian rule.
It was a speech that reflected the momentous changes in Myanmar over the past year, as Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament after 15 years of house arrest, and the country has shed its pariah status.
For the first time, Myanmar’s speech to the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders was broadcast live on state television at home. Never before had such a speech even mentioned the opposition leader, whose peaceful struggle against military rule won international admiration but only the ire of the former junta.
While former general Thein Sein has orchestrated Myanmar’s political opening, he has not publicly praised Suu Kyi before, nor referred to her as “Nobel laureate” as he did Thursday.
“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,” Thein Sein said.
Later speaking at the Asia Society in New York, he said Suu Kyi had played a “crucial role in the reform process.”
“She’s been a good colleague,” Thein Sein said according to the interpretation of his comments, made in Burmese language. “I believe she will continue to work with us to complete all the things we need to achieve in the country.”
Suu Kyi is currently visiting America, and last week met President Barack Obama and was presented with Congress’ highest award. She attended a meeting on global education on the sidelines of the General Assembly Wednesday.
The Obama administration has been anxious that her visit should not overshadow Thein Sein’s. He still faces opposition with the military to the political reforms. However, Suu Kyi did meet privately with Thein Sein at his hotel room in New York on Tuesday.
Thein Sein met Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who announced the easing of a ban on imports from Myanmar - the main plank of the remaining U.S. sanctions on the country - to reward its progress toward democracy.
The Myanmar leader said in his speech that the country has seen “amazing changes.” He said Myanmar - including its armed forces - “have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reforms process.” He said it has left behind centralized authoritarian rule, and now has a viable parliament with checks and balances. He said the government has reached cease-fires with 10 ethnic armed groups and would hold national-level negotiations to reach a final peace agreement to completely end hostilities.
At the Asia Society, Thein Sein said he had ordered government troops stop to stop fighting with the only group not to reach a ceasefire, the Kachin Independence Army, “but our Kachin colleagues have not reciprocated.” He said the situation was not very stable and fighting is still going on.
Myanmar activists and the Kachin, however, blame the military for waging a brutal offensive and question its willingness to reach peace. They say that by easing virtually all its economic sanctions, the U.S. has lost leverage in pressuring an end to the violence, which has displaced tens of thousands of people since June 2011.
Experts on Myanmar also say that while the new legislature is energetic, it remains dominated by pro-military parties. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won 1990 elections but was barred from power, still has only a tiny portion of the seats, which it won in special elections in April.
The nation’s constitution also cements the military’s power, giving it a guaranteed portion of parliamentary seats and effective veto over constitutional amendments. Thein Sein said it was drafted through a “very inclusive” convention, but that process and the national referendum that endorsed the charter was widely regarded as a sham.
He said he did not believe there would be any reversal in Myanmar’s path to democracy, providing there was stability, rule of law and economic growth. He said that the country’s 60 million people “want the democratic system.”