RANGOON — US President Barack Obama visited the home of Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday to offer support for a reform process that the opposition leader said has hit a “bumpy patch,” a day after he met with Burmese government leaders to nudge them toward further democratization in the former military dictatorship.
Standing beside Suu Kyi on the veranda of the lakeside home in Rangoon where the democracy icon spent 15 years under house arrest, Obama acknowledged both progress and shortcomings since his last visit to the country two years ago.
“The economy has begun to grow, political prisoners have been set free, there are more newspapers and media outlets, children have been released from the military, and these are all important changes that have opened up greater opportunity for the people of Burma,” he said, while making clear that the White House would like to see more.
“The process of reform is by no means complete or irreversible. For many progress has not come fast enough, or spread far enough,” he added, pointing to media repression, constitutional flaws and ongoing rights abuses against minority Muslims in Arakan State.
Suu Kyi sounded an equally ambivalent note on the direction Burma has taken since 2012, saying that what the country and the international community needed was “a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism.”
Obama and Suu Kyi met for about an hour on Friday to discuss the political situation in Burma before speaking to reporters outside her home. Addressing a glaring remnant of the former military regime, both leaders called for an inclusive process as lawmakers mull amendments to the country’s controversial Constitution.
An ongoing campaign to amend the military-drafted Constitution has been spearheaded by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The opposition leader and her allies have collected nearly 5 million signatures in favor of reforming Article 436 of the charter—which grants the military an effective veto over changes to the document—and on Saturday Suu Kyi drew thousands of supporters to a rally for constitutional reform in remote Loikaw, Karenni State.
In addition to entrenching military power in government, the Constitution bars Suu Kyi from presidential eligibility because her late husband and sons are foreign nationals.
While stressing that the fate of that prohibition, stipulated in Article 59(f) of the charter, should be determined by the Burmese people, Obama on Friday said the provision “doesn’t make much sense to me,” and lacked a precedent in constitutional governance globally.
Suu Kyi said that while it was “flattering to have a Constitution written with me in mind,” the charter provision denying her the presidency was fundamentally undemocratic. She hinted that a more forceful denunciation of Article 59(f) by the US president would be welcomed.
“Our people are firmly behind us in our desire to change this clause, and if President Obama said anything about a necessity to change a clause like that, they would love him very much for it,” she said.
Proponents of reform are in a race against the clock as national elections loom late next year. The United States has signaled that Burma’s 2015 elections will be a seminal gauge of the country’s progress on the road to democracy.
“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,” Obama told The Irrawaddy in an interview on Wednesday.
Notorious for committing grave human rights abuses against its own people, Burma’s former military regime was ostracized by the United States and much of the Western world for decades. The Obama administration began a process of “calibrated engagement” in response to the election of a quasi-civilian government in 2010, suspending economic sanctions in May 2012 and one month later reappointing an ambassador to Burma for the first time in 22 years. In the latest nod to the increasingly close ties between the countries, the White House on Thursday announced that it would establish a Peace Corps program in Burma.
But with Burma touted by the White House as a foreign policy success story, critics counter that the United States has given up too much leverage to leaders in Naypyidaw who remain far from achieving a democratic government. Suu Kyi herself last week accused the United States of viewing the reform process with too much optimism, and lawmakers in the US Congress have called for the president to take a harder line with the Burmese government.
Obama stopped short of making any concrete ultimatum on Friday, saying only that the White House would “continue to express our concerns and we will not be able to fully realize the kind of bilateral relationship that we want to have with Burma and with the Burmese government until we’ve seen some of these reforms completed.”
Obama arrived in Burma on Wednesday to attend the Asean and East Asia summits in the capital Naypyidaw. On Thursday, he met President Thein Sein, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and other lawmakers, as well as civil society leaders and, briefly, Suu Kyi.
During talks with his Burmese counterpart, Obama said he stressed five key areas where he hoped for action, including the holding of elections on schedule next year, more tolerance for dissenting voices, and improved protection of ethnic and religious minorities’ rights.
The US president said he put emphasis on the human rights situation in western Burma, where the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority numbering about 1 million, are facing systematic discrimination from the Burmese government.
Violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 killed about 140 people and left some 140,000 others in squalid displacement camps where conditions have severely deteriorated over the last two years. Most of the victims were Rohingya Muslims whose movement today is heavily restricted and who face an acute health crisis after the provision of desperately needed medical services by aid groups was curtailed by the government in February of this year.
Earlier on Friday, the US president toured the Secretariat, a simultaneously grandiose and derelict colonial-era structure in downtown Rangoon that was at the heart of government administration until the former junta abruptly relocated the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005. It is also the place where Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, was assassinated on the eve of Burma’s independence in 1947.
Following Friday’s press conference with the opposition leader, Obama was due to meet with civil society groups and attend a town hall meeting with young Burmese leaders on the Rangoon University campus. He will depart for the G-20 Summit in Australia on Friday evening.
Almost two years ago to the date, Obama met with Suu Kyi at the very same lakeside residence, becoming the first sitting US president to visit the country. About 18 months into the Thein Sein administration’s reform program, optimism in Burma and abroad was decidedly more pronounced in November 2012 than it was this time around.
Mounting concerns that the country’s reform efforts may be faltering was acknowledged by Obama in his interview with The Irrawaddy this week.
In addition to the Rohingya crisis and Suu Kyi’s thus far stymied efforts to amend the Constitution, dozens of political prisoners continue to languish in the country’s jails, activists are being prosecuted for peacefully protesting and fighting continues to flare between the Burma Army and ethnic rebel armed groups.
Journalists are also facing increasing pressure from authorities, after an initial loosening of the strict censorship regime under the former junta. At least 11 members of the media have been jailed this year, and the freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing was shot dead in military custody last month.
President’s Office Minister Soe Thane, a close adviser to Thein Sein and like the president a former top junta member, tried to counter the negative tide against the state of Burma’s reform program earlier this week.
“We must succeed in our transition to peace, democracy and inclusive economic development. And for this to happen we need the rest of the world to appreciate the complexity of the challenges that the Burmese government faces,” he wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on Thursday, listing Burma’s colonial past, limited institutional capacity and “the mind-sets and mentalities that emerged under isolation and authoritarian rule” as among those challenges.