Myanmar President Thein Sein attends the last day of ninth session of the Myanmar parliament regular session on March 26 in Naypyidaw. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)
NAYPYIDAW, MYANMAR — Myanmar’s leader on Wednesday said the role of the powerful military should be reduced slowly in the transition to democracy amid opposition campaigns to ease the army’s grip on political power.
President Thein Sein, a general-turned-reformer, reaffirmed his support for a “strong” military in the former junta-run country, as authorities are yet to strike a national ceasefire with several ethnic armed groups.
“We have to balance democratic maturity with the development of local peace to decrease the role of tatmadaw gradually,” he told lawmakers in a speech to parliament in the capital Naypyidaw, marking three years of quasi-civilian rule.
Tatmadaw is the local name for Myanmar’s army.
“The international community used to call us a dictatorship. Now we have transformed to a country with constitutional administration. We all have a duty to develop this situation together,” he said.
Myanmar has embarked upon wide ranging economic and political reforms since it emerged from nearly five decades of outright army rule in 2011, but the military retains an effective veto in parliament with a quarter of the seats allocated for unelected soldiers.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has relaunched a political career stalled by long years of house arrest, has expressed a readiness to take on the presidency.
But that would need an amendment to the country’s constitution, which can only be undertaken with the consent of part of the military’s voting bloc.
Any change to the charter, which ringfences the army’s parliamentary seats, needs the support of over 75 percent of the legislature.
The charter change issue is rising to the fore as Myanmar prepares for key 2015 parliamentary elections, seen as a definitive test of whether the military is willing to loosen its grip on power.
The country’s president is selected by the legislature.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has said it would not boycott the 2015 poll, even without a constitutional amendment first.
A parliamentary panel has been created to come up with recommendations for amending the junta-era constitution, but the process has been mired in controversy and political wrangling.
The Myanmar leader also expressed optimism for the country’s economic development, saying that the lifting of most western sanctions had spurred foreign investment to rise from $1.4 billion in 2012, to $3.5 billion last year.
Manufacturing and tourism have seen strong growth with the country’s emergence from isolation, while ambitious telecoms, infrastructure and industry projects are set to further boost the economy.