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Exclusive: The Irrawaddy Interviews US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama answers The Irrawaddy’s questions about his visit, the reform process and the future of Burma’s democratic transition.


On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama arrives in Burma for his second diplomatic visit in as many years. In advance of the Asean and East Asia summits in Naypyidaw, Obama answered questions from The Irrawaddy correspondent Lalit K Jha about his visit, the reforms of the past three years and the future of Burma’s democratic transition.

In a recent speech to the US Military Academy at West Point, you told your audience that the United States has made a partner of Burma without firing a shot. Do you consider Burma a foreign policy success of your administration?

I was proud to become the first US president to visit your country two years ago, and I was deeply touched by the hospitality that people extended to me on my visit. I very much look forward to returning for this second visit. This time, I’m coming with other leaders from across the region because Myanmar [Burma] is hosting the East Asia Summit and the Asean Summit. It is no easy task to host summits like this, and I commend the government and the people of Burma for all their work and preparation to make these summits a success. These meetings are a reflection of Myanmar’s progress in recent years and a sign of the greater role that your country can play in Southeast Asia.

Since my visit two years ago, I also welcomed President Thein Sein to the White House last year, which was the first such visit by a leader of your country to the United States in almost half a century. In Rangoon, I was honored to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other brave activists who have risked their lives to champion democracy in Burma. And over the past two years, our countries have forged greater ties and trade. My engagement is rooted in the message that I sent to governments when I first became president—if you begin to take the hard steps toward greater openness and reform, the United States will extend a hand of friendship and assist in those reforms. I’ve always been clear-eyed about how difficult this transition would be. But as president, I’m determined that the United States will remain a partner with those who seek greater freedom, prosperity and dignity.

In my speech at the US Military Academy at West Point this year, I said that if these reform efforts succeed, the United States will have gained a new partner. Burma is still at the beginning of a long and hard journey of renewal and reconciliation. On the one hand, since my last visit there has been some progress, including economic reforms and welcomed political steps, including the release of additional political prisoners, a process of constitutional reform, and ceasefire agreements toward ending the many conflicts that have plagued your country.

On the other hand, progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago. In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward. Former political prisoners continue to face restrictions. Members of the media have been arrested, and journalist Aung Kyaw Naing was tragically and senselessly murdered. We also continue to be deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State and the treatment of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities, who continue to endure discrimination and abuse. One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected. That’s the only way reforms can stay on track. That’s the only way that this country is going to realize greater prosperity and its rightful place in the region and the world. That would be a success, above all, for the people of Myanmar, and that would be good for the United States and the world.

The United States and Western nations have pinned high hopes on next year’s election. At the same time, on the ground opposition and civil society organizations are pushing to amend the military-drafted Constitution before the election takes place. Do you see the 2015 elections as likely to be free and fair? How will the United States ensure there is truly a free and fair election? If the 2015 elections mirror the experience of the 2010 elections, how will this affect the relationship between the United States and Burma?

In Naypyidaw and Rangoon I will meet with leaders in government, Parliament and civil society, and next year’s election will be a main focus of my discussions. The United States is watching the electoral process very closely. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of an election that has not happened yet. What I will say is that this election will be an important milestone, and the people of your country—and the international community—want it to be credible so that it advances the cause of reform. This election will be critical to establishing a representative democracy that reflects the aspirations of all the people of Burma. And of course it will shape how the United States engages with the country going forward.

The future of your country must be shaped by the people of your country. We believe that you should have the freedom to choose your own leaders. It is not the place of the United States or any other nation to tell you how to decide your future. But together with the international community, the United States is doing our part to help make next year’s election successful. We are working with political parties, civil society and the government of Burma to support inclusive, transparent, and credible elections. We are providing significant assistance to help civil society groups engage and educate voters, strengthen the ability of democratic political parties to represent the interests of citizens, and increase Parliament’s legislative capacities. We are encouraging the government of Burma to develop a transparent accreditation process for all election observers, domestic and international, and we will support efforts to administer the election fairly, including domestic election observers.

On my visit, I’ll be interested in hearing from leaders and citizens about how they see preparations for the election coming along. We also know that one election won’t complete a democratic transition, which is why we’ve also supported the process of constitutional reform that is underway. On the issue of constitutional reform, we believe, as we have stated before, that constitutional reform should reflect the will of the people of Burma. It should enable credible, transparent and inclusive elections, address the rights of members of ethnic minorities and relations between the national government and ethnic majority regions, and increase civilian control of the military. Because as important as elections are, elections alone don’t make a democracy. What’s needed are the institutions of democracy, including rule of law. These will be indispensable ingredients in Burma’s long-term progress.

Burma has seen continued ethnic conflict, allegations of widespread human rights violations, continued imprisonment of a large number of political leaders and restrictions on freedom of the press. Villages have been evicted in Shan and Kachin states and the army has continued its attacks in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states, despite the ceasefires negotiated and signed with ethnic armed organizations there. What is your reaction to that? What will be your message to the leaders of Burma when you meet them this time?

My message will be that the United States welcomes the progress made in Burma toward a nationwide ceasefire and an inclusive political dialogue process, and we are encouraged by the commitment of the government and ethnic groups to continue working toward a durable peace. To succeed, a ceasefire should lead to national reconciliation that strengthens the country and ensures that all ethnic groups can participate in determining their own destiny. Genuine political reconciliation would be a tremendous achievement for all the people of Burma, and the United States is engaging all parties to encourage a transparent, inclusive, and legitimate peace process. This will continue to be a difficult and complex undertaking. Building trust after so many years of conflict will take time, and it requires good faith and strength of will on all sides. Skirmishes and other violations of ceasefire agreements put this important effort at risk.

As I said already, 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. These kinds of abuses represent the painful history that so many people in Burma want to move beyond. Their desire for a different future is why the United States continues our engagement and our support for reform and why we will continue to speak out against violence. Abuses and human rights violations like this have absolutely no place in the new Burma that so many people are working to build.

My message to the government, as I said, will be that it has a responsibility to ensure the well-being of all the people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people are respected. This is one of the most basic duties of any government. Victims deserve justice, and the perpetrators of crimes and abuses must be held to account in a credible and transparent manner. At the same time, every person has a role to play in Burma’s renewal. For example, 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. That’s why, when I spoke at the University of Yangon two years ago, I spoke directly to the people of the country about the importance of tolerance and the inherent dignity we all share as human beings. All of us in our own lives have to be vigilant aside bias and prejudice. Burma, like all nations, will be stronger and more successful if it draws on the strength of all of its people. Its remarkable diversity should be seen as a strength, not a threat.

On Friday, you will meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. From your perspective, what role does she have in the future of Burma?

I was honored to be the first president to welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the White House several years ago. As I’ve said before, she is an icon of democracy who has inspired people around the world, including me, through her example and her writings. I’ve always admired her courage, dignity and commitment to her country. I was deeply moved by the opportunity to meet with her two years ago at her home, where she displayed such resolve through so many difficult years.

I am looking forward to meeting with her again while I am in Burma. We consult with her very closely on a range of issues regarding the transition and Burma’s future, and we will continue doing that. On this visit, I’m especially interested in hearing her thoughts about the constitutional reform process, next year’s election and how the international community, including the United States, can help ensure that the vote is inclusive, transparent, and credible. She has been a tremendous voice for justice and freedom, and I expect that she will continue to play a key role in her country for many years to come.

Where would you like to see Burma 10 years from now? What role do you see for Burma in the Asia-Pacific region?

Not long ago, few would have imagined the progress and reforms we’re seeing in Burma today. If the reform process continues and there are meaningful steps on national reconciliation, then a decade from now the 50 million people of Burma could see a more prosperous, more democratic nation. There is still a long way to go, and there is no guarantee of success. But the goal of our engagement is to encourage, support, and help shape the reforms so that the people of Burma realize the future they deserve, and so Burma assumes its rightful place as a leader in a stable, prosperous, progressive Southeast Asia.

It is our hope—a hope that is the foundation of US policy—that Burma develops democratic institutions that are accountable and responsive so that all the people of Burma can shape the future of their country. We want to see a Burma where there are no more political prisoners, where political parties can operate freely and compete in fair elections, and where journalists can pursue truth free from fear and persecution. We want to be a partner in the development and economic progress that allows parents to provide for their children and provides more opportunities for young people, like those I’ll meet with in Yangon. Indeed, I’m confident that if reform progresses, the opportunities for increased US. investment, trade and people-to-people exchanges will only grow.

We also want to see a Burma that plays an active, constructive role in Asean and in the broader Asia Pacific community by contributing to regional security and prosperity, and that benefits from its engagement with the world through trade, investment, and the exchange of new ideas. We are very mindful of the tremendous challenges ahead. But we are committed to helping the people of Burma along the difficult path of transition from six decades of authoritarian rule to a democracy and growing economy that lifts people out of poverty. Your future is important to me personally, and to my country. We want you to succeed.

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