(Reuters) - The military is no longer wielding power in Myanmar, despite dictating policy for half a century, but should not be "left behind" as the country moves to strengthen its fledgling democracy, its president said on Wednesday.
In an interview with Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, Thein Sein, a former junta general chosen by parliament last year, said the military had a crucial role to play in the country's future, but had no say in government policy.
"This is an armed forces that the country has had to rely on for a very long time for security and to meet external threats," he was quoted as saying.
"So, it is important at this time that they are not left behind entirely. They have a limited role within the constitution. But they are not involved in any way in the direct affairs of government or government policy."
The military ruled Myanmar with an iron fist until ceding power 15 months ago, giving Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government the chance to transform a country that has spent the past two decades in international isolation and economic ruin.
Myanmar's constitution enshrines the military's reduced political role, allocating a quota of three ministers, and 25 percent of parliament seats to the armed forces. One of two vice-presidents is chosen by military-appointed lawmakers.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who attended her first full day of parliament on Monday, has pledged to change the constitution to squeeze soldiers out of politics.
Thein Sein expressed optimism that his government would achieve its goal of ending conflicts with ethnic minority rebels and bringing them into the political fold, although he urged patience and said the road ahead would be uncertain.
"We can't yet say this is a stable and peaceful country," Thein Sein said, adding he was confident a deal could be reached with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the one remaining group resisting the government's ceasefire offer.
"We want very much to have lasting peace, but exactly how the coming years will work out in terms of our efforts to have lasting peace remains uncertain.
He added: "There can't be peace without democracy and there can't be democracy without peace."
Thein Sein has been credited with driving Myanmar's most significant reforms in decades, including economic liberalization, more media freedom, legalization of protests, peace talks with rebels and the release of more than 670 political prisoners.
He said the release of 23 political detainees on July 3 had come as part of the government's "rigorous review", which was to ensure people "genuinely guilty of serious felonies, violent felonies, murders, narcotics trafficking and terrorism" would not walk free.
"If it is discovered that there are people who do not fall under any of these criteria and are there simply because of their political convictions, they will be released," he added.
The release of political prisoners helped to convince the United States and European Union to suspend many of their sanctions as of April, but Thein Sein called for remaining financial restrictions to be lifted to give a boost to the tattered economy.
"We really need investments, we need loans, to help to move the economy forward," he said. "It's extremely important that sanctions be lifted to make possible the sort of trade and investments the country desperately needs at this time,".
The United States is expected this week to announce plans to issue general licenses allowing its companies to invest in and provide financial services to resource-rich Myanmar, but only after detailed disclosures about their dealings, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.
(Writing by Martin Petty in Phnom Penh; Editing by Myra MacDonald)