Thein Sein speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 27, 2012. AFP
Burma’s President Thein Sein said he may consider serving another term in office if the country and people want him to do so.
“If I have my way, I will only serve one term,” said the 67-year-old retired general, who assumed office for a five-year term in March 2011, at a forum in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
“But of course the future of the position depends on the needs of country and the wishes of the people,” he said.
Thein Sein was responding to a question from the floor at a forum hosted by the New York-based Asia Society on whether he intends to leave office after his term expires in 2015.
It was believed to be his first direct response to a question on his future since he came to power under a nominally civilian government replacing decades of brutal military rule.
Thein Sein, who has been praised for implementing political, economic, and other reforms that have been rewarded by the lifting of long-running international sanctions, had indicated privately in the past that he is not interested in a second term, reports have said.
“The president has laid the foundation for the political reform and he is the founder of this transition,” Ko Ko Hlaing, his top political adviser, said in a May 2 interview in Rangoon with Bloomberg news agency.
“So after this tenure, if it is quite successful, he may be content with his works. The next steps toward democracy will be in the hands of other leaders,” he said.
Political pundits say the next election in 2015 will be crucial as it will determine whether the powerful military will accept a win by the popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept by-elections in April.
Three years away from the next elections, few expect the military or Thein Sein’s military-dominated ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to allow any dilution of the military’s powers.
Earlier, Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly Thursday that the reform process he is leading is “irreversible” and vowed to resolve the country’s ethnic conflicts, including the Muslim Rohingya problem, according to “international norms.”
In a speech that was simultaneously broadcast live on Burmese state television, Thein Sein said that Burma hadsmade significant progress toward democracy since his government took power and that all groups “have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reform process.”
Burma, he said, is now “leaving behind a system of authoritarian government,” referring to the country’s former military junta which had ruled the country for nearly five decades.
His speech followed a U.S. announcement Wednesday that it would ease a ban on imports from Burma—the latest effort by Washington to reward sweeping democratic changes in the Southeast Asian country.
Thein Sein listed a number of reforms his government has undertaken, including the granting of amnesties to prisoners, the convening of credible 2012 by-elections, the abolition of media censorship, and the increased participation of the Burmese people in the country’s political process.
In particular, he noted the democracy-building efforts of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently on a U.S. visit during which she received the Congressional Gold Medal—the country’s top civilian award—and met with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Imprisoned under house arrest for most of the last two decades by the former military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed in 2010 and won a seat in parliament earlier this year along with a number of colleagues from her NLD party.
Thein Sein’s recognition of Aung San Suu Kyi’s work is believed to be the first time a Burmese leader has mentioned the democracy leader at a world body.
The president said that political progress in Burma is “enhancing its political legitimacy,” which is creating stability and paving the way for economic and social transformation.
Thein Sein called the cessation of all ethnic armed conflicts in the nation “a prerequisite for building genuine democracy,” and said that his government is “working hard to bring an end to the longstanding difficulties in the regions of our ethnic nationalities.”
Since taking power, the government has signed ceasefire agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups, but three rounds of peace talks since November held with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma’s Kachin state have yielded little outcome.
As recently as the end of last month, Burmese government troops were pounding KIA positions in clashes that have raged since a 17-year peace agreement between the two sides was shattered in June last year. The war started when Burma won independence from Britain in 1948.
Kachin organizations say that 90,000 people have been displaced—many across the border to China—in the fighting since the ceasefire ended.
But Thein Sein said that the leaders of the Government Peace Work Committee and the KIA are holding informal consultations and are “working together to further strengthen confidence building measures.”
Thein Sein also addressed concerns over communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state, where June clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines left more than 80 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
He noted that a national level independent investigation commission, comprised of respected persons from a variety of faiths, has been established to investigate the issue and report its findings to him, and that the government has been facilitating visits to the area by representatives from a number of international agencies.
But he said that the problem “cannot be solved overnight,” adding that the government has short-term and long-term plans in place taking into account political, economic and social issues in the area.
“I sincerely believe that as an independent and sovereign state, [Burma] has the right to secure our borders and also to safeguard and protect our sovereignty,” he said.
“We will do our utmost to solve this issue in line with international norms.”
Thein Sein came under international criticism after he suggested following the June violence that the U.N.’s refugee agency take responsibility for many of the country’s Rohingyas and that they should be deported.
His proposal was swiftly rejected by the agency, but thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets to back his call and protest against the Rohingyas, saying they do not belong in Burma.
The Rohingya, whom the U.N. considers one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are not recognized as an ethnic group in Burma even though they have lived in the country for decades.
Many of the country’s 800,000 Rohingyas are denied citizenship even though their families have lived there for generations.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.