NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AFP) – The United States voiced alarm over Myanmar’s “backsliding” on democratic reforms, as President Barack Obama Thursday attended a regional summit meant to showcase the country’s transition from army-led isolation.
Obama was set to raise powder keg rights issues in a meeting with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein – a former general turned reformer – late Thursday on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.
Obama set the tone for his meeting with hard-hitting comments on the pace of reforms in an interview with Myanmar news website The Irrawaddy published just before he arrived on Wednesday night for a three-day trip.
“One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected,” Obama said.
“Even as there has been some progress on the political and economic fronts, in other areas there has been a slowdown and backsliding in reforms.
“In addition to restrictions on freedom of the press, we continue to see violations of basic human rights and abuses in the country’s ethnic areas, including reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labour.”
Obama planned to speak out on behalf of the nation’s Muslim Rohingya minority in “all of his engagements” in Myanmar, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters on Thursday.
Around 140,000 Rohingya languish in fetid displacement camps in western Rakhine State after religious violence flared two years ago, leaving scores of the minority dead and casting a dark cloud over the nation’s pathway towards democracy.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday also raised the “serious humanitarian” condition of the Rohingya.
Obama met opposition leader and Democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday afternoon at discussions with a group of lawmakers in the capital.
The pair will hold a joint press conference in Yangon on Friday, in a show of support by Obama for his fellow Nobel laureate, who he visited on his first trip to the country in 2012.
Suu Kyi had preceded Obama’s trip with her own warning against “over-optimism” about democracy in Myanmar, as the nation heads for crucial general elections next year. She is campaigning to change the junta-era constitution, which currently bars her from the presidency – even if her party is successful in the polls – and earmarks a quarter of the legislature for unelected soldiers.
A debate on the constitutional change began in parliament on Thursday.
Obama has framed Myanmar’s reform process, which began in 2011 when Thein Sein took the helm of a quasi-civilian government, as an example of the positive effects of Washington’s engagement.
His administration has in recent years made a major foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia and – until now – Myanmar’s baby-steps towards democracy have been trumpeted as a success for that strategy.
Myanmar saw the removal of most Western sanctions as it released the majority of political prisoners and loosened draconian press censorship, allowing a flurry of investor interest in the country seen as an exciting untapped market.
But the country, which was stifled under military rule for almost half a century, has faced increasingly frequent accusations that its ambitious transition is stuttering.