July 16, 2013: Burma will release all its remaining political prisoners "by the end of this year", the country's president pledged during his historic first official visit to Britain.
Thein Sein vowed that any “prisoners of conscience” would be freed from the country’s jails within six months.
The promise – made in a speech at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank – appeared to be a clear effort to convince the outside world that Burma was serious about its path to democracy.
Thein Sein, 68, who was in London to meet David Cameron, has spearheaded Burma’s move out of diplomatic isolation since becoming president in 2010. The country’s military junta, which has ruled for more than 40 years, has already released hundreds of political prisoners, including the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest.
But human rights groups say many still remain, despite previous assurances by the government that they had all been released. The president’s comments will be taken as an effective acknowledgement that the government still has some of its opponents in custody.
During his speech, Thein Sein also pledged to end more than 60 years of post-colonial hostility towards Britain, saying it was time for Burma to turn a “new page” as the former military dictatorship moved towards democracy.
“In moving towards a new and long lasting partnership we will able to build on a very deep partnerships that bound us together,” he said. “Even during the colonial era and despite the evils of colonialism, many close friendships were formed in that period.”
The Burmese president also promised a “zero tolerance” attitude to acts of violence, which have escalated as the government has embarked on its transition towards democracy in the past two years. Hundreds of members of the country’s Muslim minority have been killed in clashes with the Buddhist majority, which claims the Muslims are interlopers from neighbouring India.
Thein Sein, who said Burma was at a “pivotal movement”, warned: “We cannot let ethnic or religious differences become an excuse to revert to authoritarianism.”
He said the country faced difficult times as it tried to accommodate the demands of its different ethnic groups, with which the goverment has waged up to a dozen separatist wars over the years.
“Difficult talks will follow and hard compromises, but it must be part of a more inclusive national identity, including Buddhists and Muslims,” he said. “We are a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation.”
He said that in coming weeks, the final measures would be put in place for a nationwide ceasefire, under which “the guns will go silent over Myanmar [the name given to Burma by its military rulers] for the very first time in 60 years”.
He added: “We are moving from a period of authoritarianism to democracy but this is no easy thing.
“We see elsewhere the difficultes of change and where the habits of democracy are not engrained, there is a risk of violence and anarchy. Democracy cannot be just about elections and basic freedoms.”
Other priorities, he said, were fighting corruption, lifting millions out of poverty, and improving basic health care and education for Burmese children, whose prospects currently lagged behind others in Asia’s fast-growing economies.
Most international sanctions against Burma have been relaxed since the programme of reform began, although critics fear some of the measures may be just for show.
Outside Chatham House, a small group of Burmese activists staged a demonstration, accusing the government of continuing to wage war against ethnic groups.
Hkun Nawng, 30, said: “Thein Sein is not an honest man and he is just here to sell his genocidal democracy. Even if he has been praised as a reformer by Britain and the international community, what he is doing on the ground is killing people, especially in Kachin state.”