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Myanmar president vows to continue democratic reform, work to overcome skeptics
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) ' Myanmar President Thein Sein said Thursday that his government will build on the sweeping reforms it has begun over the last year, and will work hard to convince skeptics at home and abroad that it is truly committed to democratic change.
The Southeast Asian leader made the comments in a speech to Parliament that came nearly one year after he took office as head of a new, nominally civilian government that replaced a long-ruling military junta.
Since then, Thein Sein has overseen a wave of dramatic change that has shocked even some of the nation's fiercest critics. Those changes include freeing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with armed rebel groups, easing restrictions on the press and opening a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"There are many more steps to be taken," Thein Sein told lawmakers in the capital, Naypyitaw. "We have to continue to work hard, as there are many people within and outside the country who are skeptical and suspicious of our government."
Thein Sein said those steps include strengthening the rule of law, boosting private sector businesses and improving the impoverished country's basic infrastructure, which lags far behind much of the rest of Asia.
"Under the watchful eyes of the whole world, we have paved the way for Myanmar's democratic system," Thein Sein said. "Democracy will be further strengthened if everyone sets aside the differences and works jointly without turning back."
The U.S. and European Union have praised Myanmar's recent progress, but say they will be closely watching an upcoming April by-election before deciding whether to lift sanctions imposed during military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to win a parliament seat in the ballot, which many see as a test of the government's commitment to reform. Although she would have a voice in government for the first time, Suu Kyi's power would be limited; the legislature will continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by military appointees and ruling party officials.
Myanmar was controlled for nearly half a century by the army, which turned the country into a pariah state and ruled with an iron fist, confining Suu Kyi to 15 years of house arrest and jailing thousands of critics.
Human Rights Watch says that despite the nation's moves toward reform and multiple cease-fires reached with ethnic insurgents, the military is still abusing civilians, subjecting them to forced labor and sexual abuse.
Thein Sein, who previously served as the now-disbanded junta's prime minister, acknowledged that life had not been easy under past regimes.
"Our people have suffered under various governments and different systems and the people will judge our government based on its actual achievements," he said.