NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: United States President Barack Obama told Myanmar’s rulers its celebrated democratic reforms are backsliding, ahead of a regional summit on Thursday designed to showcase the country’s transition from army-led isolation.
Obama will meet his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein—a former general turned reformer—on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, as well as other Southeast Asian leaders.
Obama set the tone for his meeting with hard-hitting comments on the pace of reforms in an interview with Myanmar news website The Irrawaddy published just before he arrived on Wednesday night.
“Progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago. In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward,” he said.
“In addition to restrictions on freedom of the press, we continue to see violations of basic human rights and abuses in the country’s ethnic areas, including reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labour,” he added.
Obama will on Friday offer a show of support to Myanmar’s famed democracy heroine and fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, traveling to meet her in the commercial hub of Yangon.
Suu Kyi had preceded Obama’s trip with her own warning against “over-optimism” about democracy in Myanmar, as the nation heads for crucial general elections next year.
Obama has framed Myanmar’s reform process, which began in 2011 when Thein Sein took the helm of a quasi-civilian government, as an example of the positive effects of Washington’s engagement.
His administration has in recent years made a major foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia and—until now—Myanmar’s baby-steps towards democracy have been trumpeted as a success for that strategy.
Myanmar saw the removal of most Western sanctions as it released the majority of political prisoners and loosened draconian press censorship, allowing a flurry of investor interest in the country seen as an exciting virgin market.
In an effort to encourage the reforms, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar in 2012, when he also met Suu Kyi in Yangon.
Alarm over rights
But the country, which was stifled under military rule for almost half a century, has faced increasingly frequent accusations that its ambitious transition is stuttering.
Activists have sounded the alarm over prosecutions of protesters and journalists, while one reporter was shot and killed by the military last month in a volatile border area.
International concern is also focused on the plight of Muslim Rohingya minority trapped in desperate camps in western Rakhine State as a result of waves of bloodshed with local Buddhists two years ago.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday raised the “serious humanitarian issue” of Myanmar’s Rohingya – around 140,000 of whom languish in fetid displacement camps – with the country’s leaders.
“I encouraged the leaders of Myanmar to uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingya living in vulnerable conditions,” he told reporters in Naypyidaw.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is campaigning to change the junta-era constitution which currently bars her from the presidency, even if her party is successful in the polls, and earmarks a quarter of the legislature for unelected soldiers.
The concerns have overshadowed what Myanmar’s government had hoped would be a celebration of the nation’s democratic achievements at Naypyidaw this week as it welcomed its biggest gathering of world leaders since the reforms began.
Thein Sein hosted the heads of the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc for an annual summit on Wednesday.
Asean was then joined by Obama and leaders from Japan, China, India, Australia, China, Russia, South Korea and New Zealand for the East Asia summit on Thursday.
Obama is in the midst of a hectic Asia-Pacific tour that started in Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, during which he announced a surprise climate deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
He will travel to Australia on Friday for the Group of 20 summit.