Obama walking a risky line in Burma

Rights campaigners say reforms are far from complete and fear trip might be seen as seal of approval. By Andrew Buncombe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The authorities in Burma will be rewarded today for a series of fast-paced reforms with a historic visit by the US President. But rights activists have warned that unless Barack Obama presses the government to complete the journey to genuine democracy, his visit will be an "undeserved seal of approval" for the military's continued domination.

On a deeply significant trip to Asia to cement ties and underscore a shift of focus eastwards to counter growing influence from China, Mr Obama is to become the first sitting US president to travel to Burma. He is scheduled to deliver a speech at the University of Yangon, an institution that has been home to many democracy struggles.

The US believes the government, headed by President Thein Sein, has embarked on a transition towards democracy. But campaigners say the country's transformation is far from complete and there are many issues that Mr Obama must raise during his six hours in the country, when he will meet Thein Sein and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Among them is the ongoing ethnic violence; the day before Mr Obama arrived, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued images that apparently showed the extent of violence in western Rakhine state. They accused security forces of supporting some of the violence against Rohingya Muslims that has forced tens of thousands from their homes.

The White House says Mr Obama's visit to Burma ought not to be seen as a celebration of victory but as encouraging further reforms. The President said as much himself last night at a news conference in Thailand. "We understand it's a work in progress," he said. "I'm not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines when there's an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country."

But campaigners are concerned there have been too many carrots handed out already and that the West has little remaining leverage. Most Western sanctions against the country were suspended earlier this year following a by-election that saw Ms Suu Kyi and dozens of her colleagues from the National League for Democracy take their places in the parliament.

The changes in Burma have unquestionably come rapidly. The airport is bustling with tourists, hotels are full and street hawkers stand at intersections selling copies of a recently passed piece of legislation about foreign investment. People are free to talk about Ms Suu Kyi in a way that would have been unthinkable barely two years ago.

But there are many challenges ahead. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars and the constitution reserves 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military officers. Brad Adams of HRW said Mr Obama should call for a release of the prisoners and for legal and constitutional reform. It was reported last night that the government had released another 50 prisoners.

"Obama's success in securing tangible commitments on human rights, not his mere presence in the country, is crucial for promoting genuine reform," said Mr Adams.

The peeling and rather dilapidated University of Yangon has been given a new lick of paint for Mr Obama, who will be arriving after his one-day visit to Thailand yesterday and who will tonight fly to Cambodia to attend the summit of the Association of South-east Asian Nations. The President has also been urged to take up human rights issues with Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen.

University guards at the campus's gates were keeping away unauthorised visitors while police were also scouring the surroundings of Ms Suu Kyi's nearby home, where she will meet Mr Obama. A pair of young female students said they were excited about his visit but hinted at the cost of Burma's decades of relative isolation. "We admire and respect him," said one of the students, Nwe Nwe Htun. "But for us as women here, it will not be possible to become a great person like him."

Obama's success in securing commitments on rights, not just his presence, is crucial for promoting reform

Barack Obama with Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday reuters

Thailand Mr Obama's short visit was aimed at strengthening ties that have become strained following the 2006 military coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After talks on economic and military cooperation, the President visited the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Burma Mr Obama is expected to press President Thein Sein to take action over a wave of sectarian attacks against Muslims.

Cambodia Officials have stressed that Mr Obama is only visiting Cambodia because it is hosting the South-east Asia Summit on Tuesday. But aides have said he will voice his human rights concerns during his meeting with Hun Sen, Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister.