x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama presses Myanmar for more reform

US president praises Myanmar's progress in shaking off military rule, but says there is 'no excuse for violence' in Rakhine against Rohingya Muslims, which has killed at least 167 people.

US president Barack Obama, seen with secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Yangon, is the first US president to visit Myanmar.
US president Barack Obama, seen with secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Yangon, is the first US president to visit Myanmar.

YANGON // Barack Obama became the first serving United States president to visit Myanmar yesterday, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform.

Mr Obama, who was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in Yangon, met the president, Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March last year, and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I've shared with him the fact that I recognise this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey," Mr Obama, with Mr Thein Sein at his side, said.

"But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities," he added, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than Burma, which is used in the US.

Mr Thein Sein said the two sides would move forward, "based on mutual trust, respect and understanding".

"During our discussions, we also reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards," he said.

Mr Obama's south-east Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, is aimed at showing how serious he is about shifting the US strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The so-called "Asia pivot" is also meant to counter China's rising influence.

The trip to Myanmar is also intended to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement - its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.

Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving American and Myanmar flags, had lined Mr Obama's route from the airport, cheering him as he went by.

Mr Obama met fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ms Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and is now a legislator at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest.

Ms Suu Kyi thanked Mr Obama for supporting the political reform process.

But she cautioned that the most difficult time was "when we think that success is in sight".

"Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people," she said.

Mr Obama recalled Ms Suu Kyi's years of captivity and said she was "an icon of democracy who has inspired people not just in this country but around the world".

"Today marks the next step in a new chapter between the United States and Burma," he said. Before he left, the two embraced and he kissed her on the cheek.

Earlier, Mr Obama made an unscheduled stop at the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, where he, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.

The US has softened sanctions and removed a ban on most imports from Myanmar in response to reforms already undertaken, but it has set conditions for the full normalisation of relations, including efforts to end ethnic conflict.

In recent months, sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine has killed at least 167 people.

Many in Myanmar consider the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and the government does not recognise them as citizens.

An investigation into the wave of sectarian assaults painted a picture of organised attacks against the Muslim community.

"For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people," Mr Obama told a packed audience for a speech at Yangon University.

"The Rohingya ... hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it's necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence."

Mr Thein Sein, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, last week, promised to tackle the problem, and Mr Obama said he welcomed "the government's commitment to address the issues of injustice, and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship".