Editorial: Keep up the pressure on Burma

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The Independent Online

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, a US presidential visit to Rangoon would have been inconceivable. That, only four years later, his tour of Southeast Asia includes a stop in Burma as well as Thailand and Cambodia is testament to the speed of change in the region.

There is much to applaud in Burma's swift progress from international pariah to budding democratic state. Most notably, the Nobel prize-winning democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi is not only no longer under house arrest, but is the official – elected – leader of the opposition. Meanwhile, legal and constitutional reforms are under way and speech is immeasurably more free.

For all the undeniable progress, however, Burma's transformation is still only just beginning. The country may no longer be governed by a military junta, but the generals still have an arbitrary hold on power. Similarly, while hundreds of political prisoners have been released, too many remain behind bars. And then there is the ethnic violence consuming the western state of Rakhine – which has displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims – in which the security forces are implicated.

According to the White House, the aim of Mr Obama's six-hour visit – which includes meetings with both President Thein Sein and Ms Suu Kyi – is to recognise Burma's progress and look for ways that the US can help with further development of democratic institutions.

Mr Obama's motivations do not end there, however.Not only is resource-rich, underdeveloped Burma a temptation for American business. Political ties with Rangoon also fit well with the President's strategic "pivot" to Asia, designed as a counterweight to the rise of China. But Mr Obama must be careful not to allow his political and economic strategy in the region either to blind him to the less-than-perfect reality in Burma or to squander what remaining leverage the international community has to pressurise Burma to reform.