Burmese President Thein Sein has said in an interview he would accept democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi as president if elected, but added he could not amend rules that bar her from power alone.
Former general Thein Sein has paid rare tributes to Myanmar’s Nobel laureate during a landmark tour of the US where he has burnished his reformist credentials by insisting his country will continue its strides toward democracy after decades of army rule.
The Burmese leader, whose meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in New York marked the latest sign of warm relations between the nation’s leader and its most famous former political prisoner, told the BBC there were “no problems” between them.
“If the people accept her, I will have to accept her. As I said before, we are now working together,” he said, according to translated excerpts of an interview with the British broadcaster aired on Saturday.
However, he insisted he could not act alone to remove the barriers impeding the democracy champion’s route to the presidency, as the country heads toward crucial 2015 elections.
Myanmar’s constitution currently prohibits those with close foreign relatives from holding high office and Aung San Suu Kyi, who married a British academic, has two sons living in the West.
“I alone cannot change the constitution. This depends on the wish of the people and also the wishes of the members of parliament,” he said.
Thein Sein also underscored the continuing importance of the military. Soldiers have a quarter of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament and effectively have a veto on constitutional amendments, which require a more than 75 percent majority.
“The constitution clearly defines the responsibility of the military and every sector of the parliament. We cannot exclude the army from politics,” he said.
Thein Sein has won international plaudits — and the suspension or lifting of most Western sanctions — for the fast pace of change in Myanmar since he took the helm of a quasi-civilian regime last year.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed and Aung San Suu Kyi — who was kept under house arrest for a total of 15 years — has now entered parliament after her National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept key by-elections in April.
A spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said the organization “greatly welcome what he said” and said that the NLD also wanted the president to have legitimacy under the constitution.
“If it’s the president’s real attitude, we have to amend some aspects of the constitution,” NLD spokesman Ohn Kyaing said. “We think he will accept if we want to make amendments.”
He added that former Burmese defense minister Lieutenant General Hla Min had indicated recently that the military was willing to change when it felt the time was right.
Thein Sein, who was a senior figure in the previous junta, has met Aung San Suu Kyi on several occasions amid efforts to steer the long-isolated country toward democracy and economic prosperity.
In his address to the UN this week, the Burmese leader went further than ever in his praise of the veteran activist, whose struggle for change in her impoverished homeland has earned her deep affection both at home and abroad.
“As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy,” he said.