US President Barack Obama has met Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, shortly after accusing his government for “backsliding” on democratic reforms.
Seeking to encourage reforms in the Asian country, Obama urged Thein to hold inclusive elections next year and respect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority.
Despite setbacks on those fronts, Obama insisted that he remains optimistic about Myanmar’s move towards democracy.
“We recognise that change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line,” Obama said following a late-night meeting with Sein at his palace.
“But I am optimistic about the possibilities for Myanmar.”
Thein said he had a candid discussion with Obama about the need for more progress and insisted that he was committed to that effort.
But he said that on some aspects of the political and economic reforms his country has outlined, more time will be needed.
Obama, who is attending the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, criticised his hosts on Wednesday for the persecution of members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, a crackdown on journalists and reports of abuses in other ethnic minority areas.
“Even as there has been some progress on the political and economic fronts, in other areas there has been a slowdown and backsliding in reforms,” Obama told Irrawaddy, a website and magazine that is published in neighbouring Thailand by exiles from Myanmar.
“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. These kinds of abuses represent the painful history that so many people in Burma want to move beyond.”
A semi-civilian government took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule and initiated sweeping reforms, including releasing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on political parties and the media.
In recognition, the EU and countries like Canada and Australia lifted sanctions imposed in response to the junta’s suppression of democracy. The US has suspended the sanctions but not lifted them entirely.
“Not long ago, few would have imagined the progress and reforms we are seeing,” Obama said, while adding the government had to do more to ensure the reforms “stay on track”.