Obama Confronts Shortcomings in Burma Reforms Skip to main content

Obama Confronts Shortcomings in Burma Reforms

US President Barack Obama meets with Burma’s President Thein Sein in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on May 20, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

BEIJING — As President Barack Obama arrives in Burma’s remote capital, he is confronting a nation backsliding in its pledges to enact economic and political reforms that were rewarded with US sanctions relief and made the long-isolated country a darling of Obama’s efforts to stake out a legacy in Asia.

The optimism over Burma’s unexpected shift from military rule has subsided as reforms slow. The country’s pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi remains ineligible for next year’s presidential elections because of constitutional rules designed to block her. And Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims face escalated attacks and persecution in the largely Buddhist nation.

“There’s no certainty about the future,” said Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Burma. “There’s nothing inevitable about this all succeeding.”

Obama was due to arrive Wednesday night in the capital of Naypidaw, his second stop on an eight-day Asia-Pacific swing that opened in China and ends later this week in Australia. The president was first attending a pair of regional summits, then holding talks in the capital with Burma’s President Thein Sein before traveling on to Rangoon to meet with Suu Kyi.

White House officials say Obama has always been realistic about the challenges ahead in Burma, a country that in many cases lacks the infrastructure and capacity to enact the reforms its leaders have promised. However, human rights advocates and other critics of the administration’s policy toward Burma say the United States gave up its leverage by too quickly rewarding the government for reforms it has not yet fulfilled.

Michael Green, an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the White House put reforms in Burma “on the scoreboard and they dropped it and now they’re scrambling.”

For Obama, the pursuit of democracy in Burma has become a centerpiece of his efforts to deepen US engagement in Asia. In 2012, he became the first sitting US president to visit the country, a daylong stop that included an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi at the residence where she spent more than a decade under house arrest. The president’s advisers still recall the thick crowds that lined the streets to watch Obama’s motorcade speed through the streets, defying rules that had limited large public gatherings.

It’s unlikely Obama would be returning to Burma ahead of next year’s election if the country weren’t hosting the two regional summits. Still, White House aides say the timing of the trip gives Obama an opportunity to make an in-person appeal for progress.

“The United States can best move that forward by engagement,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “If we disengage, frankly, I think that there’s a vacuum that could potentially be filled by bad actors.”

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