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Burma ‘backsliding’ under Obama's spotlight

AFP | US President Barack Obama shakes hands Burmese President Thein Sein

US President Barack Obama is set to meet Burmese President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his second diplomatic visit to Burma. But the military’s stalled reforms and rights abuses have dampened spirits this time.


Obama arrived in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw on Wednesday amid growing frustration over the military’s failure to follow through on its reform pledges – amid criticism, in some circles, that the US president had made too many overtures to the long-isolated Asian country too soon.

During his historic November 2012 visit to Burma, the first by a sitting US president, Obama announced US sanctions relief following the country’s emergence from the “Bamboo Curtain” – a reference to the military’s extreme isolationist policies under the so-called “Burmese Way of Socialism,” which kept the country virtually hermetically sealed for decades.

But ahead of his second trip, Obama has voiced disappointment over the slow pace – and at times the backsliding – of reforms as well as the continued human rights abuses against Burma’s minority Rohinga Muslim community.

“It is clear that President Barack Obama would have wanted to see a lot more change in Burma,” said FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther, reporting from Washington.

In an exclusive interview with Thai-based Burmese magazine The Irrawaddy, Obama noted, “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 labor.”

Amid international concerns over the systemic human rights abuses against the Rohinga Muslims in the southeastern Rakhine State, Obama noted that, “much of the violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State is being committed by local residents, but the government has a responsibility to work with the people to improve the humanitarian situation, and to address the underlying challenges.”

All eyes on Obama meeting with Suu Kyi

Beyond concerns about the situation in Rakhine, the US is also monitoring the lead-up to Burma’s presidential election next year.

Opposition leader Suu Kyi is still banned from participating in the election under the country’s current constitution.

The US is a vocal supporter of the Nobel laureate and longtime opposition leader and has explicitly aligned itself with a potential Suu Kyi candidacy, with US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell calling her inability to run for the presidency “strange.''

“She’s the one, whether in phone calls or in person, who gives the updates for the Obama administration in terms of how reforms are doing and whether they are really going anywhere,” said Crowther. “I think you could safely say the White House ideally might even want to see her in the presidency, but she is banned from that at this point,” said Crowther.

At the heart of Washington’s frustration with the Burmese military junta lies its failure to change the country’s existing constitution.

Drafted in 2008, the constitution stipulates that a quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, which has veto power over any constitutional changes. The constitution also bars any Burmese national with foreign family members from the presidency – a clause specifically targeted against Suu Kyi, whose sons have British nationalities.

Obama is set to meet with Suu Kyi in the economic capital of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) after holding talks with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw.

“When President Barack Obama moves on from the capital to meet Aung San Syuu Kyi,” said Crowther, “he’ll also be meeting civil society groups and young people there and that’s when you’ll see more sincere thoughts about the reforms that are taking place – or not – from Obama.”

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