US's Kerry Presses Burma Leaders on Human Rights, Reforms

By Lesley Wroughton 9 August 2014

NAYPYIDAW — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday pressed Burma’s political leaders on Washington’s human rights concerns and urged its President Thein Sein to step up constitutional reforms to ensure elections next year are fully credible.

Kerry, in Burma’s capital for the ASEAN Regional Forum, met Thein Sein and discussed plans for elections in 2015, concerns over the treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingya, as well as the jailing of journalists, a senior State Department official said. He also discussed these issues with Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

While officials acknowledged there had been significant change in Burma during its political transition since 2011 from military rule, they also said there had been “some resistance and some slowdown” in tackling more difficult issues such as press freedom and constitutional reforms.

Kerry will meet with Burma opposition leader and international icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon on Sunday. She has campaigned for a change to the constitution that bars her from the presidency and gives substantial political power to unelected military members of parliament. The United States has promised to ease sanctions further if there are more reforms, including the withdrawal of the military from politics.

But U.S. officials said the lifting of remaining sanctions was unlikely until the process of reform and respect for human rights advances. “Right now the focus is entirely on bearing down on these more fundamental challenges that they are now coming face to face with,” the senior official said.

Rohingya in the Spotlight

Kerry got into “quite a few details” about the situation in Rakhine state and the minority Muslim Rohingya community, the official said. In particular, he addressed the designation of the term “Bengali” which the Rohingya see as underscoring an assertion they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in western Burma for generations.

“The name issue should be set aside,” the official said. “To force any community to accept a name they consider to be offensive is to invite conflict, and if the goal is to prevent conflict, then it’s better to set that aside.” Kerry also raised specific cases involving the arrest of journalists, the official added.

The senior State Department official said there was no resistance from Thein to discussing the issues. Ye Htut, Burma’s minister of information, said on Friday the government had moved in the right direction since elections in 2011 but also recognized it needed to do more.

“We don’t deny there are some challenges that we are facing,” he said, “But we are moving toward the right direction and we’re trying our best to overcome these challenges.” “People in Congress should have more understanding of our situation, and instead of blaming us, they try to find a way to help the Burma people to solve all these things,” he said.