September 23, 2015 / 3:15 PM / 3 years ago

Myanmar president broadcasts democratic credentials in election push

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s President Thein Sein portrayed himself as a champion of free speech in a video released on Wednesday, adding to speculation he may look to serve a second term as a national election campaign hots up.

The country’s other dominant political figure, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been galvanizing crowds with a message of sweeping change, faster reforms and a federal state inclusive of ethnic minorities.

The scope and pace of that transition will be determined by the outcome of the Nov. 8 election, in which the ruling camp and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will battle for the hearts and minds of more than 30 million voters.

Thein Sein’s video, entitled ‘opening the freedom of expression’ and posted on his Facebook page, praises him for allowing trade unions and the right to protest, and shows newspapers being printed, people discussing news at kiosks and protesters apparently free to engage in democratic dialogue.

“Once, Myanmar was a country which was full of censorship where people could never dream of freedom of expression... Since president Thein Sein took charge, everything has changed,” say subtitles under the video.

Myanmar has progressed from the days of military rule, when the junta jailed and tortured political opponents, but the government has recently clamped down on dissent, bringing cases against students, land reform campaigners and other activists, rights groups say.

There are 108 political prisoners in Myanmar, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a monitoring group, and nearly 460 activists on trial.

Thein Sein himself is not competing in November’s poll, but he leads Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and may well be reelected for a second five-year term by the new parliament, giving him the right to form the government.

The president is chosen from three candidates nominated by parliament and the military, which holds a quarter of the seats in the bicameral chamber.

Thein Sein’s clip, featuring professional graphics and dramatic background music, is a second in a recent series showcasing the achievements of his semi-civilian government.

He has sent mixed signals about his ambitions, but his increasingly vocal online campaign, the removal of a powerful political rival from party leadership in August and his widely-publicized trips to areas devastated by recent floods are likely to stoke speculation about his appetite for another term.

Reporting by Hnin Yadana Zaw; editing by John Stonestreet

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