By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - A senior figure in Myanmar's parliament on Wednesday described recent reforms in the country as "sluggish and unsatisfactory" and urged the civilian government to act faster to push through legislation for the benefit of the public.
Thura Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker and former third-in-command of the junta that ceded power last March, criticized President Thein Sein's administration for not accepting a bill to raise civil service salaries and suggested further reforms might take time.
"If those who have to move do not move, those who have to push will have to push," Shwe Mann told a forum of businessmen and economists attended by journalists.
"At this rate, matters to review and amend existing laws and enact new ones will not be accomplished during the five-year term of the present parliament."
The comments by Shwe Mann, a former four-star general regarded by the West as a key reformer in Myanmar's new political system, were the first public rebuke of the government by a top official in a country where criticism of those in power was for decades brutally suppressed.
Despite his position as a parliament speaker, Shwe Mann is seen by analysts and diplomats as having a pivotal role as the new administration tries to prove its democratic credentials in a bid to gain international acceptance and have Western sanctions lifted.
The criticism by Shwe Mann comes a week after members of a European Union delegation urged him to ensure parliament not only debated legislation but scrutinized the government.
"ACT WITH COURAGE"
Shwe Mann, 65, said members of parliament should be brave enough to openly criticize those in power.
"Instead of blaming for past mistakes, we need to learn lessons from them and act accordingly with courage," he said.
"It is important that laws that will be conducive to and will also protect the interests of the people and the country must emerge as soon as possible."
Myanmar's cabinet, led by Thein Sein, who was less senior than Shwe Mann in the old regime, has embarked on a wave of reforms since coming to office on March 30 last year.
Among the surprising changes have been the release of more than 600 political prisoners, an easing of media censorship, laws allowing protests and trade unions and ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebel groups that government negotiators say could be concluded within three months.
All those changes have been demanded by the West in order for sanctions to be lifted, which would allow Myanmar to normalize trade relations with the European Union and United States and could lead to a flood of Western investment in the resource-rich country.
Another requirement that would strengthen the case for easing embargoes is fair by-elections in April for 48 legislative seats, polls being contested by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party after two decades in the political abyss.
"I have promised to foreign dignitaries including (U.S. Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton that the by-elections will be free and fair," Shwe Mann said. "And it is up to the responsible people to make it free and fair."
However, some of those attending the briefing were skeptical about Shwe Mann's comments, given his ties with Thein Sein and his position as deputy chairman of the powerful Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was formed by the junta and controls 76 percent of the legislature.
"In my eyes, all of them are the same even though they are representing different organs of power," said one businessman, who asked not to be identified.
"I wonder how they talk about these things at party meetings. Frankly, I just cannot understand what is happening."
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)