In his opulent official residence – a Sun King-style palace with VIP elevator inherited from his army predecessor – President Thein Sein of Myanmar pledged this week to step up the pace of reform and crack down on religious and racial violence.
Marking the second anniversary of his administration, Mr Thein Sein appealed for a lifting of international sanctions, suggesting in an interview with the Financial Times that Myanmar had made a clean break with the past military dictatorship.
“Only when we have real economic progress will the democratic process flourish, but we need three things – capital, technological capacity and human resources development,” he said. “We also need the support of our people, the international media and the international community.”
Myanmar’s transformation has drawn parallels with the post-apartheid transition in South Africa and the post-Franco democratic settlement in Spain. But the country is still struggling with endemic poverty – one third of the population live on less than $1 a day – as well as ethnic and religious conflict.
The president – a short, mild-mannered former general wearing black sandals and a dotted mauve longyi, or sarong – admitted that police and security forces had failed to stem recent attacks on Muslims in the central town of Meiktila that left more than 50 dead, 1,500 homes razed to the ground and 12,000 sheltering in makeshift camps.
Mr Thein Sein said the police had been heavily outnumbered. But he rejected suggestions by UN human rights officials of state links to the violence.
“Our first priority is to fight poverty . . . if people have jobs and income-generating opportunities, they will not resort to violence like in Meiktila,” the president added.
U Soe Thane, a former Commander of the Navy and now minister in charge of economic development, told the FT that 2013 would be the year of implementation. “Every minister must come up with targets for reforms, if we can’t do it, then it is time to leave.”
Signalling his resolve, the president also on Monday launched a big overhaul of his administration featuring changes to nearly 50 top civil services posts including the dismissal of six senior officials.
Diplomats in Myanmar say the reform efforts are led by a small nucleus of former military officers, supported by a dedicated group of mainly western-educated technocrats.
Visitors are struck by the contrast between the 20-lane highways and palace-offices in Naypyidaw and the spartan government buildings complete with sleeping areas, small kettles and breakfast cereal as civil servants work through the night to keep the reform movement on track.
In the past two years, Mr Thein Sein and key ministers have reformed labour law, pensions and bank credit as well as scrapping press censorship and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
The president announced a “third wave” of reforms this week, featuring pay rises for civil servants, assistance for farmers and subsidised mobile SIM cards. He recently pledged to boost mobile phone penetration to 85 per cent from less than 6 per cent of the estimated 60m population within three years.
Mr Soe Thane also paid tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who spent 15 years in detention, mostly under house arrest. “Aung San Suu Kyi is a democracy icon. Thein Sein is reform icon,” he said, boosting the impression that the two are working behind-the-scenes to bolster reform and prepare the ground for a transfer of power after the 2015 elections.
That outcome will depend, however, on the passage of a constitutional amendment in Parliament, where the army holds 25 per cent of all seats and so could prevent any change to the constitution. Ms Suu Kyi – known simply as The Lady – has called for the amendment’s passage to be supported by a 75 per cent vote, plus “one brave soldier”.
EU member states must decide this month whether to allow sanctions to lapse and whether to restore preferential trade access for Myanmar, suspended in 1997 in response to abuses by the previous military regime.
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