UNITED NATIONS — Myanmar’s president told the U.N. General Assembly Thursday that no one can reverse the democratic reforms that have helped his nation shed its international pariah status over the past 18 months.
Myanmar’s military-backed government has been taking “tangible, irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reform process,” said President Thein Sein, a retired general.
The Southeast Asian country is making progress toward democratic reform, but the task has not been easy, he said.
“In the ongoing reform process, we are facing challenges as well as opportunities,” he added.
The Obama administration intends to reward Myanmar by lifting a U.S. ban on imports, one of the last major sanctions on the nation. It already has mostly waived an investment ban and financial restrictions, paving the way for U.S. businesses to invest in Myanmar.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton informed Thein Sein of the decision to waive import sanctions in an hourlong meeting with Myanmar’s leader Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. summit.
Congress in August extended some sanctions on Myanmar by a year, but gave Mr. Obama the authority to waive the import sanctions.
U.S. relations with Myanmar have thawed over the past year, as the military-backed government has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized opposition political parties, eased restrictions on the press and enacted laws to strengthen workers’ rights.
Thein Sein said the political progress has enhanced his nation’s political legitimacy, adding that Myanmar now has a democratic government and a strong, viable parliament.
On a visit to the U.S. this month, Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, voiced support for lifting sanctions on her country. Her visit coincides with Thein Sein’s trip to New York.
U.S. officials cited Mrs. Suu Kyi’s position, in part, to justify the decision to lift the import sanctions.
“I think both [Mrs. Suu Kyi] and President Thein Sein have made it clear, time for using sanctions to modify political behavior, given the political transformation in Burma, has gone past,” a senior State Department official told reporters in a background briefing.
The Treasury earlier this month lifted sanctions on Thein Sein and parliament Speaker Thura Shwe Mann.
Human rights activists say lifting any more sanctions would deprive the U.S. of a tool to keep the military-backed government committed to reforms.
Thein Sein told the U.N. session that he places a high priority on ending wars with ethnic rebels in his country. Myanmar has struck cease-fires with 10 groups, but a war with Karen rebels in the northern Kachin state still rages.
Thein Sein said government officials and the Karen rebels are holding informal talks. Mrs. Clinton earlier offered U.S. assistance to facilitate a peace process.
Communal violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state also is posing a challenge for the government. Rohingyas, who are stateless Muslims, have been raped, arrested and killed by Myanmar security forces following deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in June.
Thein Sein said the violence is unfortunate and unexpected, but that a commission has been established to investigate.
In her meeting with Thein Sein, Mrs. Clinton expressed appreciation for “what he has done, especially in terms of transforming the political landscape that is Burma today,” said the senior State Department official. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
There are still more than 300 political prisoners in Myanmar.
Mrs. Clinton and Thein Sein discussed the release of all political prisoners and the conflict with ethnic minorities in Myanmar. She also urged Myanmar to end its military relationship with North Korea.