Obama meets Myanmar leader amid fears of backslide

P-1 (764 x 430)NAYPYITAW: President Barack Obama received a hero’s welcome two years ago during his historic visit to Myanmar, whose rapid rebirth after decades of repression was a source of hope for the region and beyond. Yet when he meets Thursday with President Thein Sein in the nation’s sparking new capital, Obama will carry a far grimmer message as he warns of a worrisome backslide in the country’s march toward a freer and fairer society, reports AFP.
A nationwide cease-fire with armed ethnic groups has yet to materialize. Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition figure, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is banned from next year’s pivotal elections. Scores of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing for fear of violence at the hands of Buddhist mobs, while roughly 140,000 more remain trapped in camps under dismal conditions.
This was not the Myanmar that Obama had hoped for when he made U.S. engagement with the nation, also known as Burma, a centerpiece of his efforts to promote human rights and expand U.S. influence in Asia.
To be sure, the country has made great strides. But the optimism that once radiated here has faded, tempered by the realization that, to transition successfully away from five decades under a military junta, Myanmar needs more than just the right words from its leaders and high-profile visits from an American president.
So when Thein Sein hosts Obama for a sit-down at his new marbled, moat-enclosed palace, all eyes will be on how hard a line Obama will toe. After all, Obama has staked part of his legacy overseas on Myanmar’s success, and Obama is facing tough questions about why he’s rewarding Myanmar with a second presidential visit when the progress Thein Sein promised has, in many cases, been slow to emerge.
“It’s a very fluid situation right now inside of Burma,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Thursday before the meeting. “We have significant concerns that there has to be further follow-through.”
The meeting offers Obama his first chance to weigh in on Myanmar’s state of affairs since he set off Sunday on a weeklong tour of Asia and Australia. But in China, on the first leg of the trip, Obama treaded lightly on human rights issues and other areas where pushing a firm stance could have upset his hosts.
In addition to Thein Sein, himself a former member of the junta, Obama was meeting earlier Thursday with parliament members to discuss their role in democratizing the country. White House officials say a key U.S. concern is the need for constitutional reforms, such as the elimination of a rule that is keeping Suu Kyi off the ballot because her sons hold British citizenship.
In a sign of the high regard in which Obama holds the opposition leader, when Obama called Thein Sein late last month to lay the groundwork for his visit, he placed a call the same day to Suu Kyi.
And when Obama flies Friday to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, he’ll not only meet with Suu Kyi but hold a joint news conference with her and visit the Secretariat, the infamous building where her father, Gen. Aung San, was assassinated.