Obama warns of Myanmar 'backsliding'

Nov 12, 2014, 11:44 PM EST
Myanmar President Thein Sein (R) walks with US President Barack Obama after the latter arrived at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on November 12, 2014.
AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama is to hold talks with Myanmar's President Thein Sein, hours after accusing his government of backsliding on reforms. The BBC reports:

Mr Obama is in Naypyitaw for the East Asia summit, which follows Wednesday's Asean meeting. In an interview with a Thai-based Burmese website ahead of his arrival, he said that progress had been made.

But he said reform momentum had slowed in Myanmar and that there had even been some steps backwards. "Burma is still at the beginning of a long and hard journey of renewal and reconciliation," Mr Obama wrote in the interview with The Irrawaddy magazine.

In some areas there had been progress, he said, including "the release of additional political prisoners, a process of constitutional reform, and ceasefire agreements" relating to conflicts with Myanmar's minority groups.

But he said progress had not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition from military to civilian rule began in November 2010. He cited restrictions on political prisoners, the arrest of journalists and the ongoing plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority displaced in Rakhine state after anti-Muslim violence.

"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," he wrote.

In the four years since she emerged from house arrest as a world-famous champion of democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 69, has hesitated to take on many of her country’s biggest issues, critics say, and has failed those who expected a staunch human rights advocate. The New York Times reports:

She has instead emphasized a general call for rule of law, a critical issue for a country emerging from a half-century of dictatorship but one, they say, that falls short of addressing particular grievances.

Since entering Parliament two years ago, she has been reluctant to speak out about abuses by government forces against civilians in the ethnic conflict in Kachin State, saying both sides were responsible for killings. As chairwoman of a panel investigating land disputes between poor farmers and a copper mining company accused of unfairly taking their land, she sided with the company.

Perhaps most surprising of all, she has refused to admonish the government for its harsh policies against the Rohingya Muslim minority, policies that Mr. Obama criticized last week.

Those policies, along with episodes of deadly violence against the Rohingya by radical Buddhists, have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes and confined more than 100,000 to squalid camps. In public comments, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has equated the plight of the Rohingya with that of the region’s Buddhists, saying that it was important “not to forget violence is committed by both sides.”

Human rights advocates, who argue that most of the violence has been committed by the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya minority, say they are astonished that she has abdicated what they see as her moral responsibility to shine a light on obvious human rights abuses.