Obama's Burma visit: six hours that changed Suu Kyi's fortunes

Nov 20, 2012
Edward Loxton

US president's demand for an end to violence in Rakhine helped take pressure off opposition leader

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

IN JUST a six-hour stopover in Burma on his way to a Southeast Asia summit meeting in Cambodia, US President Barack Obama probably did more to help end ethnic violence in the restive Burmese state of Rakhine than six months of hand-wringing in Western capitals.

This assessment summed up the views of leading human rights activists after listening to a tough speech by Obama at Rangoon University. The re-elected President's strong words, demanding an end to the violence, "perhaps had the additional effect of taking some of the pressure off opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take a stand on this difficult issue," said activist writer U Myint. "It was almost as if the President was acting as proxy for her."

Suu Kyi has come in for wide criticism, particularly abroad, for failing to speak out publicly for an end to the violence between Buddhists and the minority Moslem Rohingya population in Rakhine State. "She's damned if she does and she's damned if she doesn't," said one observer, referring to the support the opposition leader commands in a predominantly Buddhist country.

Obama's visit also prompted Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein to help restore some of the lost shine to Suu Kyi's international reputation by releasing 45 political prisoners. The opposition leader has made the unconditional release of all political prisoners a paramount demand which the government appears now to be hesitantly recognising.

Suu Kyi stood beside Obama as he promised continued US economic support for Burma if the government of President Thein Sein continued its democratic reforms—and specifically acted to release all political prisoners and solve the crisis in westernmost Rakhine State, where thousands of Rohingya residents have been made homeless and forced to flee after attacks by the Buddhist majority.

The Rohingyas, an 800,000-strong Moslem community, have endured decades of official repression and most are denied even Burmese citizenship, unwanted by both Burma and neighboring Moslem Bangla Desh. An unknown number have died at sea after attempting to flee Burma in open boats bound for Bangla Desh or Malaysia.

Thein Sein's reform-minded government has indicated that it will examine the tricky issue of citizenship, but any moves to integrate the Rohingya are expected to be met by opposition from a large and vocal section of the general population.

"The plain truth is that racism and all its ugly manifestations rule social and political life in Rakhine State and many other parts of Burma," said one journalist, who requested anonymity because he has received death threats because of his views.

Significantly, Obama referred in his Rangoon University speech to "repression," saying: "Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assembly together must now be fully respected." He reminded his listeners that the United States was a nation of immigrants where a mixed-race citizen born in Hawaii had been able to aspire to and claim the highest post in the land.

"When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: 'We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,'" he said.

"And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip. Under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform.

"America will support you every step of the way: by using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by partnership with you as you connect your progress towards democracy with economic development."

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Suu Kyi should move from the centralism of speaking her country men and learn to talk for all confined or condoned people all over the world who either succumb to intoxication and killed off without any media report or if any, it is distorted to construe that the government was in the right. Democratic nations are also doing that. Let her ask Obama to help her on human rights issues.