Obama vows to press Burma for further reforms during historic Asian visit
US president Barack Obama said yesterday his historic trip to Burma was not an “endorsement” of the country’s reformist government but rather acknowledgement of steps made towards democracy.
Speaking at the start of a visit to southeast Asia, Mr Obama praised Burmese president Thein Sein for moving the formerly secretive nation forward after years of repressive military junta rule.
He denied that today’s tour of the country – the first by a serving US head of state – was premature, saying: “If we had waited until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we would be waiting a long time.” The comments were made during a press conference in neighbouring Thailand. The three-day trip comes just two weeks after Mr Obama was re-elected to serve another four years in the White House.
Pivoting US interests
As the first overseas trip of his second term, it has been seen in the context of a pivoting of America’s interests away from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia.
But the visit to Burma has had its critics. Although Mr Obama will be applauded by some for encouraging the country towards democracy, others have noted that its reforms have yet to be consolidated.
Questions remain over the regime’s commitment to human rights, with special attention paid to its record of political persecution and the brutal repression of ethnic minorities. Hundreds of prisoners were released by Burma last week but human rights campaigners said no political prisoners were included. Mr Obama said yesterday he would address lingering concerns with the Burmese government.
“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,” he told reporters.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government, this is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half ago, two years ago, no one foresaw it.”
He said that under Mr Sein there had been an “articulated commitment to further political reform” but that no one was “under the illusion that Burma has arrived”.
Responding to criticism that the trip had come too soon, Mr Obama said: “If we had waited until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we would be waiting a long time.”
But he pledged to “give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future” during his talks with Mr Sein.
Meeting Aung San Suu Kyi
The US president said he would “congratulate them on having opened the door” but stress that “the country has a long way to go”.
He added that he took guidance from the example of Aung San Suu Kyi, the much admired Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom he is due to meet in Rangoon during the visit.
-(Guardian service )