NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said Myanmar faced “significant challenges” in its democratic transition but pledged Washington’s support as the former pariah moves towards “benchmark” elections.
Washington’s top diplomat said he held “frank” discussions with Myanmar President Thein Sein on the sidelines of Southeast Asian meetings, warning that there was still “a lot of work to be done” as the country emerges from decades of military rule.
“Next year’s election will absolutely be a benchmark moment for the whole world to be able to assess the direction that Burma [Myanmar] is moving in,” he told reporters at a press conference in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw.
Kerry said Myanmar was on an “amazing journey” but said the country still needed to overcome “significant challenges,” including ethnic conflict, religious violence, concern over press freedoms, and the complexity of moving from junta rule to democracy.
Thein Sein, a former general who shed his military uniform to lead a quasi-civilian go–vernment three years ago, has overseen broad reforms that spurred the removal of most international sanctions.
The changes include freeing political prisoners, scrapping draconian press censorship and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.
Those steps have seen most international embargoes dropped and enticed a horde of foreign investors eager to tap into one of Asia’s last frontier markets.
But US officials have said those are the “easier” steps, with reforms facing a “slowdown” as the country heads towards the 2015 polls, which are widely expected to be won by Suu Kyi’s opposition party.
Meeting with Suu Kyi
Kerry, who was in the country for talks with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other global powers, met Suu Kyi at her Yangon home late on Sunday.
“When I was last here in 1999 I visited with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. Today she sits in parliament and the people here are openly debating the future direction of this country,” he said before the meeting.
The US envoy said Myanmar’s government had indicated its willingness to continue working towards democratic transition and that Washington would work “hand in hand” with the Southeast Asian nation to help the reforms.
“We will continue to work very very carefully,” he said.
“Without turning a blind eye to anything that violates our notion of fairness and accountability and human rights and the standards by which America always stands,” Kerry added.
A report in state media on Sunday detailing the meeting between Kerry and Thein Sein said the Myanmar leader ack–nowledged the country’s chal–lenges, but urged the interna–tional community to focus on its achievements.
The English-language newspaper New Light of Myanmar said the president pledged there “will be no ‘backsliding’” on its reforms.
The international community has voiced increasing frustration as Buddhist nationalism appears to tighten its grip on Myanmar, with fresh attacks against Mus–lims last month in the second largest city of Mandalay raising concerns that continued bouts of religious unrest could destabilize the democratic transition.
Unrest sparked between Bud–dhists and Muslims in 2012 in Rakhine state, where 140,000 mainly stateless Muslim Rohingya remain trapped in dismal camps with little access to basic services.
Alarm has also been raised over the arrests of journalists and dissidents, while the country is still grappling with ongoing insurgency in its far north, muffling hopes for a long-awaited national ceasefire deal.