NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: US Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday hailed Myanmar’s transition to a civilian government steered by Aung San Suu Kyi as a “remarkable statement” that furthers the cause of global democracy.
In the first high-level meeting with Suu Kyi and her administration since it took office in March, Kerry told the Nobel laureate her country’s evolution towards democracy after decades under the military served as a beacon of hope.
“Today my message is very, very simple: we strongly support the democratic transition that is taking place here,” he told reporters at a joint press conference with Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw.
Historic elections in November swept Suu Kyi and her party into office and effectively ended half a century of military rule.
Kerry applauded the process as a “remarkable statement to people all over the world”, adding that the new government “has already accomplished extraordinary things.”
Washington last week lifted a host of financial and trade embargoes, but has kept the backbone of its sanctions as well as a blacklist of cronies and businesses close to the former junta.
“I know that the legacy of more than half a century of military rule has not been completely erased,” Kerry said.
Suu Kyi, a veteran activist whose decades-long struggle against the generals won the world’s admiration, has much political capital in Washington.
She now serves as Myanmar’s foreign minister, while also holding the newly-created position of state counselor putting her at the helm of government in defiance of an army-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency.
That role is now held by her longtime ally Htin Kyaw.
In addition to November’s landmark election, reforms so far have seen hundreds of political prisoners freed, the press unshackled from censorship and foreign investment flood into a country cut-off from the world for so long by paranoid generals.
As he enters the twilight of his term in office, US President Barack Obama is doubling down on his “Asia pivot”—a diplomatic strategy to engage the continent’s leaders and tap its growing economies.
Kerry will also meet army chief Min Aung Hlaing, as Washington looks to induce further democratization moves.
The army retains significant economic interests and political clout under a charter it scripted—including a quarter of all parliamentary seats and control of key security ministries.
Myanmar faces other huge challenges, including decrepit infrastructure, conflicts in resource-rich borderlands, religious tensions and the continued influence of the army and junta-era cronies, who still dominate the economy.
US investment in Myanmar remains relatively low, although some US companies including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, fast food restaurant KFC and carmakers Chevrolet and Ford have already established a sales presence.
Last week Washington rolled back more sanctions, opening up all Myanmar banks to American business, while also extending indefinitely permission for firms to import through Myanmar’s ports and airports—many of which are operated by cronies still on the blacklist.
But tension points remain.
In recent weeks Washington has come under pressure from hardline Buddhists after the US embassy used the term “Rohingya” to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine.
The term is incendiary to Buddhist nationalists who label the group “Bengalis” and view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
More than 100,000 Rohinyga languish in displacement camps following sectarian violence in 2012.
Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are denied citizenship even though many can trace their roots in the country back generations.
Conceding it is a “sensitive issue”, a State Department official reiterated America’s stance that all people have the right “to self-identify, including the Rohingya.”
Kerry will go on to Vietnam Sunday to accompany Obama to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for a three-day visit likely to focus on trade, security and human rights.