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Obama Seeks to Push Myanmar Back on the Path Toward Democracy

President Obama and President Thein Sein during the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
(Credit: Nyein Chan Naing/European Pressphoto Agency)

By Mark Landler and Thomas Fuller
November 13, 2014

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — Faced with signs of regression in a country whose democratic transition he has claimed as a diplomatic coup, President Obama on Thursday prodded Myanmar’s president to keep on track its transformation from a reclusive military dictatorship to a fledgling democracy.

In a meeting here with President Thein Sein, Mr. Obama encouraged him to pursue reforms of the political system and the Constitution. And Mr. Obama warned him that he needed to end the systematic persecution of Muslims in western Myanmar, which has generated outrage worldwide.

“We recognize that change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line,” Mr. Obama said after the meeting, citing the violence against Muslims and the failure to change the Constitution.

Mr. Thein Sein, a retired general who has carved out a political career as a reformer, said, “We’re in the process of addressing these concerns. We definitely need to address these concerns.”

If it were not for an Asian regional summit meeting being held here this week, the president would not be visiting this remote Southeast Asian capital, especially just two years after his last visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. But since he is here, the White House is trying to make the best of what is clearly a diplomatic work in progress.

On Friday, Mr. Obama will meet with the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with young Burmese, to encourage them to retain hope in their country’s struggle to shed decades of military dictatorship and to settle years of conflict with ethnic minorities.

“Parts of the reform effort have stalled, parts have moved forward and parts, we’ve seen, have even moved backward, so it’s a mixed picture,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who has been involved in the opening to Myanmar.

The uneven pace of reform, Mr. Rhodes and other administration officials said, argues for continued American engagement, particularly as the Burmese plan for elections next year and debate an overhaul of their Constitution to reduce the dominant role of the military.

While the United States has suspended sanctions against Myanmar, they remain on the books, and Mr. Rhodes noted that two weeks ago the Treasury Department blacklisted a senior Burmese political figure with ties to the military who it said was impeding reforms.

“We need to be smartly and carefully engaged to promote change from the inside,” said Derek Mitchell, the American ambassador to Myanmar. “We have no illusions about the challenges.”

American officials are applying the most intense pressure over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, which many in the majority Buddhist population regard as interlopers from Bangladesh. Since sectarian rioting two years ago that left more than 150 dead, tens of thousands have been herded into internment camps, where the authorities demand that they identify themselves as Bengalis, often beating them if they refuse.

As a measure of the deep discrimination that the Muslim minority faces, Burmese officials on Thursday repeated their position that members of the minority had no right to call themselves Rohingya and called on the outside world to use the term Bengali.

The Burmese government expressed “deep disappointment” that the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, had used the term Rohingya during a media briefing, saying it would “inflame local sentiment.” Mr. Obama used the word freely in his meeting with Mr. Thein Sein, a senior American official said.

The bias against the Rohingya is so broad in Myanmar that even Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and human-rights hero, has declined to speak up in their defense. Officials said the subject was likely to come up in Mr. Obama’s meeting with her Friday, which will be held at her lakeside residence in Yangon, once known as Rangoon.

“We believe that all leaders across the political spectrum can play a role,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Her voice is obviously critically important.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is battling a provision in the Constitution that disqualifies her from running for president because her two sons hold British passports. Her party, the National League for Democracy, is fighting a related campaign to strip the military of its current veto power over constitutional amendments.

Administration officials said they view the elections as the key benchmark for judging Myanmar. Mr. Obama would likely not have visited until after the vote, but Myanmar is the host of the East Asia Summit, a group of 18 countries that meet to discuss issues like China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. Mr. Obama had pledged to attend.

Critics accuse the administration of taking credit for Myanmar’s opening but failing to follow up with the grinding work of reform. Because of what the critics call the premature lifting of sanctions, they say the United States has diminished power to pressure the military-dominated government.

“There’s not a lot of leverage, but they have to marshal what they have,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, citing military aid as an example.

Mr. Mitchell, the American ambassador, said the United States would not engage with the Burmese military unless it saw more evidence of reform. “It is really step-by-step calibration,” he said. “I challenge the notion that the administration has declared victory in Burma.”

Administration officials do cite Myanmar as a rare example of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is the incoming Senate majority leader, has long championed democracy here and will no doubt keep an eye on the pace of reforms.

Although Mr. Obama visited Myanmar in 2012, this is his first visit to Naypyidaw, one of the world’s unusual capitals. Carved out of sugar cane fields and custom-built in extreme secrecy a decade ago during the days of military dictatorship, it is a largely lifeless sprawl of government buildings isolated from the extreme poverty of the countryside.

Mr. Obama and other leaders are staying at luxury hotels and guesthouses that line the wide, empty boulevards of the sparsely populated city. The president’s villa at the Kempinski Hotel is a 15,000-square-foot walled compound with a private swimming pool and gym.

But in the neighboring town of Pyinmana, a dusty and dilapidated, but bustling, maze a dozen miles from where the leaders gathered, residents said they had heard that Mr. Obama was coming to the country but not much more.

“For me this changes nothing,” said Thein Win, who charges passengers 30 cents for a half-hour drive to a village on the outskirts of town. He is barred from traveling to Naypyidaw, where horse carts are not allowed. “I would be arrested if I took my cart there,” he said.

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