YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar faces uncomfortable scrutiny this week over fears its reforms have hit the buffers as Barack Obama joins global leaders in Naypyidaw, with the country’s transition towards democracy entering a pivotal phase.
The former pariah state, which currently holds the chairmanship of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc, has come under fire from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who sought to temper US “over-optimism” in comments just days before the American leader’s arrival.
The US president, making his second trip to the country since it shed full junta rule, has invested heavily in Myanmar’s opening up as he hunts a prized foreign policy win from a two-term presidency dogged by turmoil on the international stage.
Obama, who will meet both Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein during his visit, will highlight America’s commitment to “keep reforms on track”, according to National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
“The United States recognises the progress that Burma has made but notes that real challenges remain and missteps have been made in the course of this transition,” she added, using Myanmar’s former name.
Activists have urged the US president to toughen his stance amid worries Myanmar is backtracking on reforms as elections slated for late 2015 loom.
Wrangles over the nation’s constitution, the cramping of media freedom as well as tinderbox issues such as burgeoning Buddhist and anti-Muslim violence, have taken the sheen off its emergence from isolation after decades of iron-fisted army rule.
Last week Suu Kyi said reforms had been “stalling” for almost two years, although she stopped short of saying they were in reverse.
She is campaigning to change a junta-era constitution that bars her from becoming president and earmarks a quarter of parliamentary seats for unelected soldiers.
Washington remains sensitive to the opinions of Myanmar’s renowned democracy activist, who spent 15 years under house arrest during the junta but was released after a controversial 2010 poll that heralded the start of a quasi-civilian rule that has seen her enter parliament for the first time.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s view of the election will be enormously important to ensuring that it is seen as credible by the people of Burma and the international community,” Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, told AFP.
Suu Kyi’s “exasperation will be noted” when Obama meets her in Yangon on November 14, said Nicholas Farrelly of Australian National University.
But the US leader would be wrong to “mimic” her downbeat stance as fears of backsliding were “mostly overblown” – as are expectations that Myanmar would undergo a relatively painless transition to democracy, he added.
Obama, who is on an extended tour of Asia including a trip to China, also travels with Washington’s so-called “pivot” to Asia in mind as the superpower seeks to counterbalance Beijing’s regional dominance.
Myanmar, a resource-rich nation of more than 50 million strategically nestled between China, India and Southeast Asia, has long been under the influence of Beijing, whose support shielded the former generals from the full force of international sanctions.
Myanmar’s Information Minister Ye Htut said his country was satisfied with “improving” US ties, but would not “give sole priority” to the US at the summit.
Obama will receive a warm welcome in Naypyidaw for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meeting from November 12 to 13.
But behind the bright face Myanmar will present to the world, troubles are mounting.
Journalists have been jailed, one reporter shot dead while in army custody and dozens of activists arrested in recent months, mainly for protesting land disputes.
Myanmar is also struggling to win peace after years of ethnic minority insurgency, while grappling with waves of deadly anti-Muslim violence and accusations of state complicity in the plight of tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims in desperate displacement camps.