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Myanmar: A revolution in progress

May 20th, 2013
06:16 PM ET

By Samuel Burke & Juliet Fuisz, CNN

It is known as the Myanmar miracle.

Or that is the hope for the country of almost 50 million people tucked between Asian powerhouses India and China. Just three years ago, Myanmar was being brutally led by one of the world's most repressive military regimes; today, it is a fledgling democracy.

For decades, Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was best known for the heroic struggle of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest, separated from her husband and sons by her military jailers.

But she kept up the struggle to reform her beleaguered country and now her vision is becoming reality at a breathtaking pace.

She may be the icon of democracy in Myanmar, but her country now calls someone else the icon of reform: President Thein Sein. He is in the United States for meetings with President Obama Monday– the first time a Burmese leader has visited the White House since 1966.

"I myself am amazed at the speed of the improvement of our bilateral relations,” President Thein Sein told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in a TV exclusive on Sunday. “But there are no permanent friends or permanent foes in international relations." 

In November, President Obama became the first-ever U.S. leader to visit Myanmar. At the time, he was acknowledged that the country was a work in progress.

"I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be," Obama said in November. "On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time."

Though Myanmar is charging towards change, economic liberalization, lifting press censorship, and representative democracy, major problems do still persist. There's endemic poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and an explosion of brutal ethnic violence, specifically the targeting and massacre of the country's Muslim minority by its Buddhist majority.

The group Physicians for Human Rights today accused the government and security forces of standing idly by, and called for an independent investigation into the killings.

President Thein Sein is in Washington with the hope that the U.S. will ease some of the remaining economic sanctions.

Right now, the United States and China are competing for influence in Myanmar, though President Thein Sein downplays that.

"I must say there's no competition between China and the United States. Our foreign policy is we maintain friendly relations with all countries around the world, and will continue to maintain our friendly relations with China; and at the same time, we'll try to maintain and improve our relations with the United States," he told Amanpour.

China is worried. They are conducting an unprecedented public relations operation inside Myanmar to convince the people that all their investments will also benefit the Myanmar.

"China continues to be our friendly neighbor," President Thein Sein said.

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Myanmar

For many years, the military junta was known as one of the most brutally repressive in the world; now President Thein Sein sings an entirely different tune.

"As one of the citizens of Myanmar, I am trying my best to fulfill the will and the desire of the people," he said."We have a democratically elected constitutional government as well as the elected members of parliament. So it's the duty of the government to fulfill the will and the desire of people. The reforms that we are instituting are the will of the majority of the people."

Though Aung San Suu Kyi spent years in house arrest under his regime, President Thein Sein is now working with her.

"When I met with her, we tried to reach some common ground for the interest of people and the country. So there is some common ground between us. At the same time, we have different views on some issues," President Thein Sein said. "But we were able to agree that we will leave those issues for later and solve our differences through negotiations."

Aung San Suu Kyi told Amanpour in an interview last Septermber that she never took what the junta did to her personally.

"It is politics. I like a lot of the generals. I'm rather inclined to liking people. I always got on with people in the army. You mustn't forget that my father was the founder of the Burmese army," she said.

For more than a year, there has been an explosion of communal violence of Rohingya Muslims being killed, along with other groups.

The government has been criticized for not doing enough to stop this.

"We don't have a policy of discriminating based on religion or race," President Thein Sein told Amanpour. "This communal violence started because of a criminal act and then this led to the communal violence. We're doing our utmost to contain the violence while ensuring the rule of law."

President Obama says there's no excuse for violence against innocents.

"All the citizens in our country must be able to enjoy their fundamental rights," President Thein Sein said. "At the same time, we must also safeguard their rights and the rights in accordance with our law."

Just ahead of this trip President Thein Sein released twenty political prisoners – as he often does before talks with the West.

But will he release all the remaining political prisoners?

"Some of the prisoners that we still detain are there because they've committed crimes such as murder or rape. But they will be released, based on the recommendations of the committee," President Thein Sein said.

But does he feel more comfortable in the old military uniform he used to wear? Or in the civilian suit of a newly minted democrat?

"As president, I have more duties," President Thein Sein admitted. "It is a heavy duty and a heavy responsibility to serve the people and the country."

RELATED: Aung San Suu Kyi has “soft spot” for the military generals

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • Myanmar
soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. maungpeace

    Reblogged this on maungpeace and commented:
    Amanpour is very nice in paraphrasing her questions. Although more questions were common, there were some specific question about land grabbing in Eastern Shan state during his time as a commander of Eastern command. not bad interview. It would be better if I could listen Thein Sein's Burmese voice instead of English dubbing. He looks stiff. come on, relax...she can't bite you. 😛

    May 20, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Reply
    • Maria

      burma buddhists are Cannibals they are eating dead Muslim's flesh after killing them. IT IS TRUE check the facts and images.

      May 21, 2013 at 2:50 am | Reply
      • buddha

        were they making it halal as per Islamic rituals..

        May 21, 2013 at 4:24 am |
    • Thomas

      Ms Amanpour asked the right questions but the President only gave her stock answers. This approach supports the positon the President is not really the person in charge in Burma but that the miltary is still calling the shots. I think time will only tell whether democracy will take root in Burma. For right now, the US needs Burma to stop China from gaining more and more influence in the area and Burma needs the US in regard to North Korea which I think the Burmese leaders are very scared.

      May 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  2. Maria

    Ask that fellow to stop Buddhist killing innocent Muslims in his country

    May 21, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
    • Kyaw Zaw

      not only Buddhist killed Muslim, Muslims also killed the innocent Buddhist. isn't it??

      May 21, 2013 at 1:02 am | Reply
    • buddha

      muslims cannot live in peace with any other religion... not even themselves.. i think ethnic cleansing is more humane approach

      May 21, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
      • Justice786

        Dalai Lama condemns Buddhist attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka
        May 8, 2013, Associated Press

        NEW DELHI, India - The Dalai Lama has reached out to monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, imploring them to end recent violence towards Muslims in their countries. << Peaceful words: In his speech at the University of Maryland, the Dalai Lama implored Buddhist monks to stop the violent and deadly anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar

        May 21, 2013 at 2:11 am |
      • Maria

        burma buddhists are Cannibals they are eating dead Muslim's flesh after killing them. IT IS TRUE check the facts and images.

        May 21, 2013 at 2:49 am |
    • buddha

      ....muslims cannot live in peace with any other religion... not even themselves.. i think ethnic cleansing is more humane approach

      May 21, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • Riks

      No Peace with Muslims simply..
      RTA – (Religious Terrorist Attack)
      ONLY Approx 25% of world population is muslim.. 75% non muslims
      BUT 99% of Religious Terrorist Attack (RTA) are by Muslims..
      More than 20.000 RTA since 9/11...
      by mathematical probability those 75% of the non-muslim population should commit the crime (RTA), but why this 25% of Muslim occupy 99% of the crime?... WAIT!! 100% of suicide bomber are??... guest who?
      Still think is religion of peace?...

      May 21, 2013 at 2:01 am | Reply
      • Justice786

        With fake numbers, you can prove anything. Let us see now: Neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Mao were Muslims. Guess who has committed genocides on a scale not seen before and after in human history. As a math oriented professor, I deplore your use of numbers to derive a false conclusion.

        May 21, 2013 at 2:14 am |
      • Maria

        burma buddhists are Cannibals they are eating dead Muslim's flesh after killing them. IT IS TRUE check the facts and images.

        May 21, 2013 at 2:49 am |
      • Regal

        well if you think you are gonna get virgins in afterlife.. why not.. lol.. they dont realise it was just a publicity gimmick.. there arent no virgins anymore..

        May 21, 2013 at 4:51 am |
      • abu salim

        Islam is the only religion which provides peace and prosperity and Muslim are the best people on the earth.No 1 on the earth has the generosity they have .They are people that can give U whatever U need even do they need it ..And plz don't say anything abt islam if U don't know and If U really Love Jesus U would have became a Muslim because Islam is the Complete religion of what Jesus have came down..And Evry Religion has forbidden To kill innocent people and wht the Burma Gov. is doing is atrocity ..But i wonder those Gov. who support by not condemning and come out while saying " THERE IS DEMOCRACY IN BURMA" shame on You ....

        May 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • ttt

        Who said Islam is the religion of peace? It is the religion of killing. They kill animals when they celebrate. They are used to killing. They think shouting 'God is great' prevent them going to hell.

        May 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm |

    Buddhists should be ashamed, their religion is no longer sacred, look at how they are acting yet they will not kill a fly but kill innocent people, they have killed hundreds, how dumb is that? Poor muslims, I know many muslims and they are amazing people and nothing how they are portrayed, this is just crazy close minded islamophobic media creating sheep that go baa baa without figuring out the reality but letting a box in their living room figure out their reality for them.

    May 21, 2013 at 1:30 am | Reply
    • Shish Yakoo

      "sheep that go baa baa" You forgot to continue: baa baa, they forced my sister to convert to islam when she married a muslim, and killed her when she wanted to return to Buddhism.

      May 21, 2013 at 2:49 am | Reply
      • Maria

        Buddhists are cannibals , check them in your nation. It is a Fact

        May 21, 2013 at 3:08 am |
      • SAW YU MON

        hi pls tell ur name , that happening where n which place

        May 21, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  4. sam

    burma buddhists should be punished they should stop killing innocents muslims., if jihadis enter burma then there will be new era in burma history.

    May 21, 2013 at 2:16 am | Reply
    • Saint

      If war comes, then war you shall get. Should you come in peace, you shall be met with peace. There's solid proof that a neighbouring has been making efforts to export extremist ideologies to Myanmar, so why should we stay idle?

      May 21, 2013 at 2:41 am | Reply
  5. Maria

    burma buddhists are Cannibals they are eating dead Muslim's flesh after killing them. IT IS TRUE check the facts and images.

    May 21, 2013 at 2:49 am | Reply
    • Saint

      I think you are sorely mistaken, instances of cannibalism has no precedent in Myanmar, in 2008, after a major cyclone, people would even refuse to eat fish because they feared the fishes might have eaten human flesh. Your "facts" of cannibalism comes with no proof, either in video nor, picture format ... Why don't you visit Myanmar first instead of gobbling up what the media feeds you. It will be an eye opener.

      May 21, 2013 at 3:19 am | Reply
  6. Rain

    Some Muslim are CANNIBALS...Check it out this video..

    May 21, 2013 at 4:15 am | Reply
    • Southernfink

      I very much doubt that he still qualifies as a Muslim.

      May 21, 2013 at 4:49 am | Reply
  7. Regal

    Muslims are troubled where ever they go.. its high time they all converge on holy land of arabia.. just like the jews and call it there own. i think that too was will of Allah !

    May 21, 2013 at 4:36 am | Reply
  8. Frank

    The article itself is fine – but what always shocks me are the comments by some readers: "Buddhists are cannibals", "Jihad", "Muslims are also cannibals" etc. – what a nonsense! This has hardly anything to do with the article and/or the recent history of Myanmar and is simply misplaced. If you want to understand the questions on the relations between the Buddhist majority of the country and the Rohingya, you will have to go back decades if not centuries – and btw by no means are all Muslims in Myanmar Rohyingas, and most of the Muslims e.g. in Yangon are an important part of the diverse society and absolutely understand themselves as being Burmese.
    And if you reduce the current changes in this country to a clash between Muslims and Buddhists (which, let me clear about this, do happen and must stop), then you have probably missed a large part of Myanmar's recent history.

    May 21, 2013 at 4:57 am | Reply
  9. oz

    the Burmanese Government is commiting genocide then they say it is not their policy to ethnic cleansing.
    They are very evil ones. A Government that cannot protect or act against aggressors is self an aggressor.Who are they kidding. they dont have Police or an army to enforce rule over their people???
    They are cursed Leaders may what they did to innocent muslims haunt them.

    May 21, 2013 at 5:28 am | Reply
  10. shanghtin

    Amanpour : forget to us about kachin IDP. really want to know how the president going to response on that.

    May 21, 2013 at 5:52 am | Reply
  11. Jeremy

    I just spent some time in Myanmar. I wonder how many other commenters here have even left their own country.

    May 21, 2013 at 9:43 am | Reply
  12. FBR

    Mr. Thein Sein is making a blatant lie. As he is comfortably welcomed by Obama, his host, the Kachin people of Burma are being mercilessly killed and raped. "No prejudice based on religion or race"? The biggest lie I've heard in a long time. Help the ethnic minorities in Burma please.

    May 21, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  13. Rufus Reeta

    @Abu Salim you said "Islam is the only religion which provides peace and prosperity and Muslim are the best people on the earth.No 1 on the earth has the generosity they have .They are people that can give U whatever U need even do they need it ..And plz don't say anything abt islam if U don't know and If U really Love Jesus U would have became a Muslim because Islam is the Complete religion of what Jesus have came down". A point of correction, in general around the World Christians are more peaceful than Muslims. Not only them, the few budhaists i know seem more peaceful too. Have you not heard of the clashes between Shiite and Sunni muslims? Anyway, Jesus came down to this hell to rescue the lost, me included. He comes to rescue in Person not as a religion, perhaps that is why some Pentecostal Christians dismiss organised religion outright. Have you heard a story about a Person who every religion(Budhaist, Muslim, Rabbi(orthodox Jew), organised christian religion(Church Goer)..etc) tried to heal them but failed until one who follows Jesus did. Jesus loved us before we loved him and knows us more than we know him and ourselves. If you really want to know if i am writing the truth, ask Jesus right now in faith and he will give you the truth.

    May 22, 2013 at 8:47 am | Reply
  14. SayanIndia

    I watched the program on CNN yesterday.

    I must say that Christiane played “safe” with President Thein Sein, almost acting as a nice host. Her questions did not provoke much embarrassments.


    May 27, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
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