CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Myanmar President Thein Sein welcomed closer ties with Australia on Monday as he asked for continued support through his country's transition to "peace, democracy and prosperity," a mission that he said "has no parallel in modern times."
The first Myanmar leader to visit Australia since 1974, Thein Sein joined Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a news conference where she announced it will restore limited military cooperation and increase business ties with the Southeast Asian country, which ended five decades of military rule in 2011.
Thein Sein asked for Australian understanding about the political challenges facing his resource-rich but impoverished country.
"I hope you will appreciate that what we are undertaking has no parallel in modern times," Thein Sein said through an interpreter at Australia's Parliament House.
"It is not just a single transition, but three together. It's a transition from military rule to democratic rule, from 60 years of armed conflict to peace and from a centrally controlled and isolated economy to one that can end poverty and create real opportunities for all our people."
Thein Sein's government replaced the military junta after 2010 elections that were widely regarded as neither free nor fair, but he has surprised much of the world with broad reforms that include freeing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on freedom of speech. Australia, the United States and many other countries have lifted sanctions in light of the continuing changes.
Gillard said in recognition of Myanmar's moves toward democracy, Australia will soon post a defense attache to the Australian Embassy in Myanmar's commercial center of Yangon. But Australia's arms embargo against Myanmar will remain. Australia will also post a trade commissioner to Yangon to increase trade and investment links with Myanmar.
"Australia wants to encourage the development of a modern, professional defense force in Myanmar which continues to support democratization and reform," Gillard said.
"It will take time to move to a full normal defense relationship and we will do so carefully on a step-by-step basis," she added.
She said restrictions would be lifted on defense interactions in areas including humanitarian and disaster relief as well as peacekeeping. There could be joint training exercises between the two nations' militaries, she said.