Major role for military in Myanmar government, says Thein Sein
Ahead of meeting with Obama, Myanmar's leader dismisses allegations that army took part in ethnic pogroms against Muslim minority
The military that ran Myanmar for decades will continue to play a major role in the country, according to the former general who has presided over the transformation of a nation that only three years ago was considered one of the world's most repressive.
The army has a proud history in Myanmar and "will always have a special place" in government, Myanmar's President Thein Sein said in an interview on Sunday, on the eve of a White House meeting with President Barack Obama.
Thein Sein dismissed as "pure fabrication" the allegation from human rights monitors that the army condones or even participates in ethnic pogroms against the nation's Muslim minority, including the ethnic Rohingya. The army "is more disciplined than normal citizens, because they have to abide by military rules", he said through an interpreter.
Thein Sein said it was mostly up to Myanmar's parliament to see through numerous reforms sought by the United States and other nervous backers of the experiment in democracy. For example, he said he had no direct say in, or independent opinion on, whether Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi should be eligible for the presidency in two years.
In the lengthy interview, Thein Sein made little attempt to promote a picture of vigorous reform in Myanmar, or to sell himself as the pivotal leader promoting democracy.
Continued economic sanctions "are an obstacle, and they indirectly hurt the Myanmar people", he said.
"We are fully aware the sanctions are imposed for various reasons," Thein Sein said. It was the closest that he got to commenting on Myanmar's brutal past.
Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar when he met Thein Sein in Yangon in November.
The quick follow-up invitation to Washington reflects US hopes and worries about progress in Myanmar, where the rapid expansion of political and economic freedom marks a rare and unexpected foreign policy success for Obama.
"I will explain about the democratic path we are on and the challenges and obstacles," Thein Sein said. "I will ask the United States to assist."
Thein Sein, 68, is a former associate of junta leader Than Shwe who was picked from obscurity to become prime minister in 2007 and then the face of the country's transition to civilian rule in 2011.
The junta's reasons for making the unusual choice to relinquish absolute rule remain a mystery. There was no revolution, no Arab spring, no civil war. The desperate state of the heavily sanctioned economy was a big factor, but not the only one.
Thein Sein shed little light on the decision, saying the former government had a long-standing road map for democracy.
Some activists are angry about Obama hosting Thein Sein. The US Campaign for Burma said Thein Sein's trip follows a troubling trend in Myanmar, and that "instead of honouring an abusive leader" the US should tie its concessions to conditions.
Additional reporting by Associated Press