Myanmar's president has vowed to keep up the reform process, urging the West to lift economic sanctions. Meanwhile, the opposition is gearing up for April elections.
"We are on the right track to democracy," President Thein Sein confidently declared in an interview with the Washington Post published on Friday. The leader of Myanmar's nominally civilian government promised not to turn back on democratic reforms initiated since March last year.
He also urged the West to lift sanctions, arguing that the conditions for lifting such punitive measures had been met by the new administration, which has released political prisoners and scheduled parliamentary elections for April 1. "What is needed from the Western countries is for them to do their part," he added.
The US, the European Union and others imposed stringent economic sanctions on Myanmar while the country was still under military rule, but the former general who now leads Myanmar said they hurt ordinary citizens much more than the junta leaders and were holding back economic progress.
Thein Sein has hinted Aung San Suu Kyi might join the government
The international community has praised the overtures to democracy but is keeping a close eye on the upcoming vote, which is seen as a major test of the administration's democratic ambitions, before making any commitments to lifting sanctions.
Suu Kyi in power
"I am sure that the Parliament will warmly welcome her," Thein Sein said of pro-democracy icon and opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, who is running in the April by-elections and expected to win if the polls are conducted in a free and fair manner.
Thein Sein even hinted she could eventually become a member of his government. "If one has been appointed or agreed on by the parliament, we will have to accept that she becomes a cabinet minister," he said.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was released from around 15 years of periodic house arrest at the end of 2010. She had been detained in 1989, ahead of a landslide election win by her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in 1990. The junta refused to recognize the victory, however, and proceeded to rule the country for the better part of the next two decades.
Now, Suu Kyi and her party are gearing up for their first poll battle since the 1990 elections. "Am I looking forward to it?" Suu Kyi recently asked at a press conference. "I am not sure I think of it as anything other than hard work. But I am not afraid of hard work."
Negotiations are underway with several armed ethnic groups
Some have said that Suu Kyi's election could legitimize the regime, but her supporters disagree: "Aung San Suu Kyi will try to have some influence on the other MPs so that the democratization process is accepted by everyone," NLD member Khin Myat Thu told news agency Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, Thein Sein insisted in the Washington Post interview that his government was committed to ending the long-running ethnic conflicts that have plagued Myanmar, and that it was currently communicating with all armed groups.
"Soon we will try to achieve an eternal peace in the country. However, this will require time," he said.
On Friday, Myanmar state media said that the government and ethnic minority Kachin rebels had agreed to hold further negotiations to find an end to the bloody conflict in the far north.
Peace deals have already been met with the Shan and Karen ethnic groups in the past month.
Author: Anne Thomas (AP, AFP)
Editor: Darren Mara