UNITED NATIONS — Myanmar's president Thursday said his country has taken irreversible steps toward democracy and paid unprecedented public tribute to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
President Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly that the country also known as Burma is leaving behind five decades of authoritarian rule.
It was a speech that reflected the momentous changes in Myanmar over the past year, as Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament after 15 years of house arrest, and the country has shed its pariah status.
For the first time, Myanmar's speech to the U.N.'s annual gathering of world leaders was broadcast live on state television at home. Never before had such a speech even mentioned the opposition leader, whose peaceful struggle against military rule won international admiration but only the ire of the former junta.
While former general Thein Sein has orchestrated Myanmar's political opening, he has not publicly praised Suu Kyi before, nor referred to her as "Nobel laureate" as he did Thursday.
"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," Thein Sein said.
Suu Kyi is currently visiting America, and last week met President Barack Obama and was presented with Congress' highest award. She attended a meeting on global education on the sidelines of the General Assembly Wednesday.
The Obama administration has been anxious that her visit should not overshadow Thein Sein's. He still faces opposition with the military to the political reforms.
Thein Sein met Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who announced the easing of a ban on imports from Myanmar — the main plank of the remaining U.S. sanctions on the country — to reward its progress toward democracy.
The Myanmar leader said in his speech that the country has seen "amazing changes." He said Myanmar — including its armed forces — "have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reforms process." He said it has left behind centralized authoritarian rule, and now has a viable parliament with checks and balances. He said the government has reached cease-fires with 10 ethnic armed groups and would hold national-level negotiations to reach a final peace agreement to completely end hostilities.
Experts on Myanmar stay that while the new legislature is energetic, it remains dominated by pro-military parties. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won 1990 elections but was barred from power, still has only a tiny portion of the seats, which it won in special elections in April.
Also, ethnic fighting persists, and has escalated in the past year between Myanmar's military and the Kachin group in the country's north, which has led many to question the military's willingness to reach peace.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon contributed to this report.