Obama optimistic on Myanmar democracy despite concerns

Jérôme Cartillier
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US President Barack Obama (2-L) shakes hands with Myanmar's President Thein Sein at the end of their bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on November 13, 2014

US President Barack Obama (2-L) shakes hands with Myanmar's President Thein Sein at the end of their bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on November 13, 2014 (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

US President Barack Obama voiced optimism Thursday that Myanmar was on the right path to democracy despite worrying "backsliding" on its much celebrated reform process.

Obama delivered his cautiously upbeat assessment after holding separate meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and a group of lawmakers, which included democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi, in the Southeast Asian nation's remote capital of Naypyidaw.

"The democratic process in Myanmar is real," Obama said following his hour-long talks with Thein Sein, a former general who in 2011 ended decades of military rule that had made the country a pariah state.

"We recognise change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line but I'm optimistic."

Obama was in Naypyidaw for the East Asia Summit, gathering leaders from 18 nations for talks on issues ranging from regional territorial spats to economic integration and fighting terrorism.

But much of Obama's focus on Thursday was on Myanmar's democracy efforts.

Earlier in the day, Obama met

- 'Backsliding' -

the tone for his three-day trip with hard-hitting comments on the pace of reforms in an interview with news website The Irrawaddy published to coincide with his arrival on Wednesday.

"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," Obama said.

"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."

After meeting Thein Sein, Obama again emphasised the democratic process was "incomplete".

He specifically identified the plight of the nation's Muslim Rohingya minority as a concern.

Around 140,000 Rohingya languish in fetid displacement camps in western Rakhine State after religious violence flared two years ago, leaving about 200 dead.

Rohingya are widely viewed as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many in the community say their families have been in Myanmar for generations.

Obama also criticised the failure to make important changes to the constitution ahead of elections next year. One key issue is a clause that bans Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Still, Obama also said there were many reasons to cheer the reform process so far, including the release of political prisoners and an end to the army recruiting child soldiers.

Speaking after meeting Obama, Thein Sein acknowledged there were problems but insisted his government was genuinely trying to reform the country.

"We're in the process of addressing these concerns. We definitely need to address these concerns," he told reporters.

Obama has framed Myanmar's reform process as an example of the positive effects of US engagement.

His administration has in recent years made a foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia and -- until now -- Myanmar's democratic steps have been trumpeted as a success for that strategy.

Obama will hold more in-depth discussions with Suu Kyi on Friday in the commercial hub of Yangon, followed by a joint press conference.

Myanmar's government had hoped this week would be a celebration of the nation's democratic achievements, as it welcomed its biggest gathering of world leaders since the reforms began.

Thein Sein hosted the heads of the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc for an annual summit on Wednesday.

ASEAN was then joined by Obama and leaders from Japan, China, India, Australia, Russia, South Korea and New Zealand for the East Asia summit on Thursday.

At the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered $20 billion in loans and a "friendship" treaty with ASEAN, in an apparent bid to defuse tensions over contested claims to the South China Sea.

Still, Li warned: "China's resolve to safeguard territorial sovereignty is clear".

Obama is in the midst of a hectic Asia-Pacific tour that started in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, during which he announced a surprise climate deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

He will travel to Australia on Friday for the G20 summit.