Activists, Ethnic Leaders Cry Neglect During Obama Visit

By Zarni Mann & San Yamin Aung 15 November 2014

RANGOON — Prominent activists and ethnic leaders in Burma have criticized US President Barack Obama for neglecting the complexities of national reconciliation and peace.

On his second visit to Rangoon, President Obama met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, members of local civil society organizations and members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative—however, longstanding democracy activists and eminent ethnic leaders were not included in his itinerary.

“I was surprised and couldn’t understand why he didn’t meet with us,” said Ko Ko Gyi, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. “I wonder if Mr. Obama was well informed about the realities of the country’s situation, since he did not hear from the people who are playing important roles in national reconciliation, peace and ethnic issues.”

“We have to question, what is the policy of the Obama administration on Burma, and whether he is aware of the reality of press freedom, and the situation of ethnic people in conflict areas,” he added.

Obama’s second visit to the country has been criticized in some quarters for the United States’ closer relationship with President Thein Sein’s government and optimistic rhetoric on the present state of the country.

“All of us are thanking the US government for their support of the democratization of the country … but he has disappointed us by showing a closer relationship with the government and neglecting to hear from us,” said Ko Ko Gyi.

He said that the country is in a sensitive situation as Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) struggles to amend the 2008 military-drafted Constitution as next year’s national election draws near.

“We felt outcast,” said Aye Thar Aung, a member of the Arakan National Party’s central executive committee. “All of the people who once risked their lives in democratic struggles were neglected. What he has done has just been to gain favor from the Burmese government. We feel that he no longer has an interest in ethnic issues.”

Civil society groups who work with internally displaced persons and refugees in conflict areas said that they were saddened after being excluded from a civil society organization meeting with the president on Friday.

“We could have had a chance to talk face to face about war refugees and the real situation in conflict-ravaged areas. We just feel sorry that we could not tell him about these,” said May Sabe Phyu, cofounder of the Kachin Peace Network.

“If I had a chance, I would have liked to ask him whether he actually had trust in the transition of the country,” she added.

After meeting with Suu Kyi at her home, President Obama met with 15 representatives from civil society organizations at the US Embassy in Rangoon.

Kyaw Thu, director of the Paung Ku NGO forum, said that the meeting featured representatives from organizations working in the fields of gender equality, women’s rights, ethnic conflicts, labor rights, election monitoring and the media.

He said that he discussed the religious and communal conflicts that have plagued Burma since mid-2012, violence that some fear could flare up again and affect plans to hold free and fair elections next year.

“I’m satisfied with today’s meeting as I got chance to talk about what I wanted. I hope our discussions will be put into consideration when they decide future policy,” he said.

Bo Bo from the Dawei Development Association (DDA) said that although the meeting was short, guests had a chance to exchange opinions with the president.

“We urged him to use a carrot and stick approach when they consider their policy of engagement,” he said.

Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said that invitees to the US Embassy had a chance to tell the real situation of the country.

“We are quite satisfied that we were able to interact with him and tell him the truth about human rights, women’s rights, ethnic issues, freedom of the press and the transition of the country,” he said.

“I told him not to prioritize investment in the country, but instead to promote human rights and freedom first. He also assured us that US policy is to put human rights first,” he added.