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Thein Sein eyes second term and more reforms

NAYPYITAW -- Myanmar's President Thein Sein signaled that he intends to pursue his ambitious reform program beyond national elections in November to the end of his current term in early 2016, and rejected recent charges that reforms had stalled and the process was backsliding.

     In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday, the president confirmed a change in his earlier intention to retire after his current term, saying he would be willing to serve a second presidential term. That, however, would depend on "the country's situation, the prevailing circumstances and wishes of the people," he noted, outlining far-reaching goals for the final phase of his current term.

     Among what he described as top priorities in the final stages of his government, Thein Sein gave the strongest indication so far of confidence that a nationwide ceasefire agreement could be finalized with ethnic armed groups before the Nov. 8 poll. He also outlined plans to deepen Myanmar's diplomatic ties with neighboring countries and step up economic development focusing on the manufacturing sector -- particularly small and medium enterprises -- alongside a new push to move the country away from raw materials exports toward value-added production.

     "I don't agree that our democratic reforms have stalled or are back-sliding," he said at the presidential palace in the capital, Naypyitaw. While acknowledging that his government had not reached the lofty poverty eradication and income-boosting targets adopted early in his term, he said that a range of political, economic and administrative reforms had resulted in "tangible and significant achievements" during his term.

     These included political and security developments, such as a marked reduction in fighting between ethnic armed groups and military, economic and social reforms, and the creation of around 80 new political parties -- some featuring former political prisoners -- that would contest elections, he said.

     "One of the most significant achievements is that we have been able to change military government to democratic elected government without bloodshed and in a peaceful and stable manner... This will be our legacy in the history of Myanmar," he added.

     On the economic front, in the eight months or so remaining until a new administration took over, the government would "redouble efforts" to help growth in the manufacturing sector and to boost productivity and exports, he said. In that respect, he added, the government would increase its focus on improving basic infrastructure such as reliable and sufficient supplies of electricity and technological know how. He said that outside assistance was vital to achieve this objective.

     "To cope with the shortages, we are closely working with other countries, including Japan," Thein Sein said, noting Japan's high levels of development assistance and investment. High profile projects include the nearly completed first phase of the multi-billion dollar Thilawa special economic zone near Yangon, and Tokyo's recent decision to join Thailand and Myanmar in developing the Dawei economic zone and deep sea port project in the country's south.

Good relations

Beyond purely economic imperatives, the government wanted to further broaden Myanmar's international relations, he said. While China remained a good friend and neighbor, and still ranked as the top investor in Myanmar, relations with the U.S. had warmed considerably despite continuing hesitancy among some big U.S. investors. "They have eased sanctions but have not yet lifted them ... [but] President [Barack] Obama's administration started a new approach and reengagement policy with Myanmar. As a result of this policy, our countries have good relations."

     Thein Sein stressed that India was also a key regional player, and that good relations were vital for Myanmar. "We share a common border, about 1,000 km," he said. "Both China and India are big emerging economic powers, and our country is sandwiched between them. So we need cordial relations with these important neighbors."

Domestic politics

On the role of the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar's armed forces, Thein Sein predicted a natural reduction of the military's role in parliament and politics as peace is restored. "I myself served in the military for 45 years. The Tatmadaw comprises national citizens. Right now, some military service personnel serve as representatives in parliament and their role is to help ensure a smooth and stable democratic transition in our country. As you know, there are still armed groups in our county, and both parliamentarians and the people have little knowledge about democratic practices and experiences. We are still in the learning process... [and] as our democratic experience matures, the military will gradually reduce its role in politics."

     Pressed about his attitude to a second term, he said that while he had age and health issues -- he recently turned 70 and uses a pacemaker -- there were few younger people who were experienced enough to "steer the country."

     He lamented the lack of unity in politics, and alluded to recent struggles within the ruling USDP party, including moves by the powerful parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann to amend laws in order to ban cabinet ministers from running under party banners. The amendments were opposed by the parliament's military bloc, which holds 25% of the 664 seats in the bicameral legislature and is seen as closely aligned with the president.

     Local political analysts said the move highlighted a bitter and deepening rift within the ruling party between the two political leaders, and exposed a growing divide between the executive and legislative branches.

     "This [the ban on ministers running under party banners] is quite an unusual provision, because according to the constitution, every citizen has the right to vote and every citizen has the right to run [for elected office]," Thein Sein told the NAR. "So this is quite unusual and I believe no one will be happy with this or no one will obey this provision."

     While acknowledging that the ban would affect any members of his government who wanted to run for seats under a party banner, the president emphasized that any ministers or senior officials could run as individuals -- and that he would be eligible for a second presidential term without running for a seat.

     "With my age -- and with some health concerns, I want to retire... But frankly speaking, in our country, there are very few young or even middle-aged people who could steer the country in the right direction. As you know our electoral system and presidential selection procedure is that [a presidential candidate] does not need to run in elections because it is based on parliamentarians, who choose the president. So running in the election is not necessary. The president is chosen by parliamentarians through an electoral college system.

     "But at present what I consider more important than being president or being next president is to stage these elections peacefully and successfully and in a free and fair manner -- and I want to see peace and stability in the post-election period and to ensure that whoever wins the elections and the presidency can form a government in a peaceful and stable manner. That is more important than pursuing the presidency -- and that is what I have on my mind."

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