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Myanmar leader says nation needs to learn from past

YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s president said Sunday his country needs to learn from the violence and instability that has wracked the Southeast Asian nation over the last two years if it is to overcome the challenge of democratization.

Thein Sein spoke in a radio address broadcast to mark the start a day earlier of a traditional New Year holiday that is celebrated by revelers across Southeast Asia with friendly water fights.

Thein Sein, a former general, took office two years ago after Myanmar’s long ruling junta stepped down. He has since led an unprecedented transition toward democratic rule, releasing political prisoners, easing censorship and signing cease-fire deals with all but one of the nation’s rebel groups.

But the country has also been plagued by a war with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north, sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, and anti-Muslim pogroms in central Myanmar last month that left 43 dead in the city of Meikhtila and turned whole Muslim neighborhoods to ashen ruins.

“We have achieved successes that we had not hoped for and also experienced shocking and saddening events we had not expected,” Thein Sein said. But “during this long road toward democracy, we have to sustain our successes and take lessons from the losses, and be prepared to face the challenges ahead.”

For many decades, Myanmar’s four-day New Year festival, known as Thingyan, has marked one of the few times people here could cut loose under the watchful eye of their repressive leaders – albeit with squirt guns and high-powered hoses used to soak civilian targets.

The water has symbolically been used to cleanse past ills, and Thein Sein said people this year should use it to “cleanse black spots like the clashes, conflicts and instabilities” which plagued the nation.

Thein Sein’s government imposed a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in Meikhtila last month, deploying the army to restore order.