Obama Tells Burma Reforms Have Much Further to Go

Posted November 19th, 2012 at 7:15 am (UTC-5)
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U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in Cambodia, where he will meet with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet Monday evening with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The White House says the president will raise U.S. concerns about Cambodia's human rights record.

The U.S. leader arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, from Burma, where he addressed a crowd at the University of Rangoon earlier in the day. Mr. Obama said he had come to keep his promise and extend “the hand of friendship.” He added that “flickers of progress” that have been seen must not be extinguished, but must become “a shining North Star” for all the nation's people.

The U.S. leader also touched on land seizures, and freedom to assemble and speak freely. He also called for an end of violence in Burma, citing the recent bloody ethnic clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama met separately with Burmese President Thein Sein and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the country's main city of Rangoon.

After an hour-long meeting, Mr. Obama, with President Thein Sein at his side, told reporters that the process of democratic and economic reform in the Southeast Asian nation can lead to incredible development opportunities. He added that he is looking forward to visiting again “sometime in the future.”

The American leader met later with Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation's leading democracy activist, at her home in Rangoon. The two Nobel Peace laureates held a news conference after the meeting. Mr. Obama told reporters he has seen encouraging signs in the country in the past year, including Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her election to parliament.

“Our goal is to sustain the momentum for democratization. That includes building credible government institutions, establishing rule of law, ending ethnic conflicts and insuring that the people of this country have access to greater education, health care and economic opportunity.”

“I want to make a pledge to the people of this country that I'm confident that we can keep. And that is that if we see continued progress towards reform, our bilateral ties will grow stronger and we will do everything that we can to help ensure success.”

However, the Burmese democracy leader warned about the risk of what she called a “mirage of success.”

“The United States has been staunch in its support of the democracy movement in Burma. And we are confident that this support will continue through the difficult years that lie ahead.”

“The most difficult time in any transition is 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 to its genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.”

“We have been able to discuss our various concerns openly, and that as a result of the president's visit to this country, the relations between our countries can only progress in the right direction.”

President Obama has said his trip to Burma – the first by a sitting U.S. president – does not represent an endorsement of the government, but is rather an acknowledgement of the political reform process under way in the country.

The president said there has been a stated commitment to further political reform in Burma, which he says deserves encouragement. But Mr. Obama says he does not think “anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be.”

He said the goal of his visit is to highlight the progress that has been made, and also to address the steps Burma needs to take in the future.

After his meeting with President Thein Sein, Mr. Obama used the name “Myanmar” instead of Burma in his remarks to reporters. “Burma” is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy movement and it is the name that is officially used in Washington. Since 1989, the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name “Myanmar” as the conventional name for their state. The U.S. Government did not adopt the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw. Mr. Obama did not say why he used the term “Myanmar” Monday.

The trip underscores Mr. Obama's increased focus on Asia as he tries to fulfill his pledge to strengthen the U.S. economy during his second four-year term in office. The Obama administration has said American foreign policy and engagement will “pivot” toward Asia in the future.

The Burmese government has recently begun making democratic reforms, but some human-rights groups have cautioned that it is not yet a fully free country.

The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch told VOA the president should have waited to travel to Burma until the country makes more progress in restoring basic freedoms.

Mr. Obama spoke in Bangkok during a news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Sunday. Thailand was the first stop on a three-nation Asian visit in his first overseas trip since winning re-election nearly two weeks ago.