Obama urged to keep pressure on Burma, not simply reward it

US President's Asia tour underscores foreign policy shift eastwards to counter China's influence

Rangoon

Authorities in Burma will be rewarded today for their 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 what is being portrayed as a deeply significant trip to Asia to cement ties and underscore a shift of US focus eastwards to counter growing influence from China, Mr Obama is set to become the first sitting US president to travel to Burma. During his trip – his first overseas visit since re-election – 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 that democracy. But campaigners say the 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 issued new satellite images that apparently showed the extent of violence in western Rakhine state. They also accused security forces of supporting some of the violence against Rohingya Muslims that has forced tens of thousands from their homes and left dozens dead.

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

But campaigners are concerned 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 seats in parliament for military officers. Brad Adams of HRW said Mr Obama should call for the release of political prisoners and for legal and constitutional reform.

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

The 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 fly on to Cambodia tonight to attend the summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

Two female students walking past the university said they were excited about Mr Obama's visit but their comments hinted at the cost of Burma's decades of isolation. "We know him very well and we admire and respect him," said one. "But for us as women here, it will not be possible to become a great person like him."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high