World Bulletin/News Desk
United States President Barack Obama has warned against “steps backward” in Myanmar’s reform process ahead of high-level meetings Thursday in the country’s capital Nay Pyi Taw.
“In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward,” he told the local Irrawaddy news website.
Obama meets with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein during the East Asia Summit, and on Friday will travel to Yangon, the former capital, to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi before addressing a crowd at the University of Yangon.
He is using the trip to urge Myanmar’s nominally civilian government to renew its efforts at democratic reforms that began in 2011, when former general Thein Sein came to power.
Obama cautioned that former political prisoners “continue to face restrictions” and “members of the media have been arrested.” Aung Kyaw Naing - a reporter whose death in military custody recently sparked international condemnation - was “tragically and senselessly murdered,” Obama added.
The military claims the journalist was working for rebel troops and that he was shot after trying to steal a gun and escape.
Obama added that his administration is “deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State and the treatment of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities, who continue to endure discrimination and abuse.”
Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state in the west of the predominantly Buddhist country. Buddhist-led violence in 2012 left scores of Muslims dead and around 140,000 confined to squalid displacement camps after being forced to flee their villages.
“One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected.”
Obama’s tone is significantly different from 2012, when he arrived for his first visit to “extend a hand of friendship to the new government, which came to power after an election widely considered to have been rigged in its favor, and which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party boycotted.
The U.S. president has since been criticized for rewarding the reformist government for its promises, rather than genuine changes.
The Rakhine State Action Plan will require Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali - a term most reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations - in order to possibly get citizenship.
According to a draft of the plan obtained by Reuters, the government has proposed that authorities build camps "for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents".
The plan violates "universal rights" and challenges Myanmar's reforms, said U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes.
"We would like to see a new plan that will allow the Rohingya to become citizens through a normal process without having to do that type of self-identification," he told reporters in Myanmar's capital.
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had expressed his concern to Myanmar about the Rohingya "who face discrimination and violence".
That prompted a backlash from Myanmar officials, many of whom reject the term Rohingya, insisting the population was historically known as Bengali.
Rhodes said the Obama administration understood there were "contested views of history" but they should not interfere with human rights.
Obama will travel to Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, on Friday to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her home where she spent more than 15 years under house arrest because of her opposition to the former military junta.
Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been notably quiet on the plight of the Rohingya.
Rhodes urged her to speak out.
"Her voice is obviously critically important," he said.
Suu Kyi hit out at the U.S. at a press conference last week for its stance on the government’s reform efforts.
"We do think there have been times when the United States government has been overly optimistic about the reform process," she said.