WASHINGTON — The chief of Myanmar's pro-military party said Thursday he is not ruling out a coalition government with the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi after crucial elections in 2015 if it's in the national interest.
In the past two weeks, both lower house speaker Shwe Mann and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi have said they want to run for president. The election will be crucial in setting Myanmar's political direction as it shifts from decades of authoritarian rule.
Shwe Mann made the comments to The Associated Press during a visit to Washington with a multi-party delegation of Myanmar lawmakers, one of them from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Shwe Mann was third-ranking member of the repressive junta that imprisoned Suu Kyi for years.
Shwe Mann said his party is collaborating with Suu Kyi, who was elected to parliament last year. Asked if a coalition was possible after the election, he said it was too soon to say whether or not that would happen, but indicated it was possible.
"I believe time will decide on this matter. But the important thing here is to have confidence between Aung San Suu Kyi and us," he said through an interpreter.
Few epitomize Myanmar's dramatic transition from pariah state to aspiring democracy as powerfully as Shwe Mann, a 65-year-old former general who was a trusted lieutenant of junta chief Than Shwe. A March 2007 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon published by Wikileaks even dubbed him a "dictator-in-waiting." He also led a secret 2008 trip to North Korea, reportedly reaching an agreement on missile technology cooperation.
But as Myanmar has changed direction, so has Shwe Mann. He's now viewed as a committed reformer and closer to Suu Kyi than current President Thein Sein who has led the nation's political changes.
Shwe Mann recently replaced Thein Sein as head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which dominates the fledgling legislature. His influence also extends into the still-powerful military he served in for four decades.
His delegation has gotten a grand reception in the Washington, meeting with top State Department officials, former top diplomat Hillary Rodham Clinton and lawmakers, including House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crowley, and Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and John McCain.
The trip, to learn how Congress works, was organized by the National Democratic Institute and the Institute for Representative Government. Six Myanmar lawmakers are participating.
At a public forum they attended Wednesday at a Washington think tank, Shwe Mann voiced commitment to rule of law, and said those who broke it would be punished.
But he later denied to AP reports from international human rights groups that security forces have been complicit in sectarian violence against minority Rohingya Muslims in the west of predominantly Buddhist nation.
The violence has killed hundreds in the past year, and uprooted about 140,000, in what some say presents a threat to Myanmar's political reforms because it could encourage security forces to re-assert control.
While acknowledging challenges in the democratic transition, Shwe Mann predicted the 2015 elections would be free and fair.
The 2010 vote that installed his party in power wasn't and was boycotted by Suu Kyi. Her party only has a toe-hold in the legislature after winning a few dozen seats in 2012 special elections. In the last nationwide free vote in 1990, Suu Kyi's party won convincingly but the military ignored the result.
Despite his cooperative spirit toward the opposition leader, Shwe Mann would not be drawn on whether he would support changes to the army-dictated constitution that would disqualify the popular Suu Kyi from becoming president. He said a parliamentary commission is considering amendments.
"I don't want to make any remarks that would influence others or hurt the interest of another person, because this matter concerns the majority of the people," Shwe Mann said.
Thein Sein has not ruled out running for a second term as president but is widely expected to retire. Last month, he became the first Myanmar leader in 47 years to visit the White House, a sign of the dramatic improvement in U.S.-Myanmar relations in the past two years after decades of diplomatic isolation.
A key U.S. demand has been that Myanmar sever military ties with North Korea, because of fears that arms sales to Myanmar, in violation of U.N. sanctions, help Pyongyang finance its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials say there's been progress, but are still calling for that military relationship to be terminated, which suggests transactions continue.
Shwe Mann asserted that the arms trade has stopped.
"If there's any information that we hear on this matter we will continue to take actions as required. Because our country, like others, will abide by the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council," he said. "We are not neglecting this matter."