NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — President Barack Obama received a hero’s welcome two years ago during his historic visit to Myanmar, whose rapid rebirth after decades of repression was a source of hope for the region and beyond. Yet as he meets Thursday with President Thein Sein in the nation’s sparkling new capital, Obama is carrying a far grimmer message as he seeks to reverse a worrisome backslide in the country’s march toward a freer and fairer society.
A nationwide cease-fire with armed ethnic groups has yet to materialize. Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition figure, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is banned from next year’s pivotal elections. Scores of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing for fear of violence at the hands of Buddhist mobs, while roughly 140,000 more remain trapped in camps under dismal conditions.
This was not the Myanmar that Obama had hoped for when he made U.S. engagement with the nation, also known as Burma, a centerpiece of his efforts to promote human rights and expand U.S. influence in Asia. This was not the Myanmar that Obama had hoped for when he made U.S. engagement with the nation, also known as Burma, a centerpiece of his efforts to promote human rights and expand U.S. influence in Asia. “The work is not yet done,” Obama said after meeting with members of Myanmar’s parliament.
After speeding along an empty eight-lane highway, Obama’s limousine passed over a moat and pulled up to an oversize presidential palace, where beams of light cycled through red and blue and purple as they lit up a resplendent bay of fountains shooting water high into the air. Inside, gold carpet and furniture accentuated the white marble of the palace as Thein Sein greeted Obama and his delegation at the start of their meeting.
Despite the grandeur of the welcome, all eyes were on how aggressively Obama would push Myanmar’s leader to get his country’s transition back on track. Having staked part of his legacy overseas on Myanmar’s success, Obama is facing tough questions about why he’s rewarding Myanmar with a second presidential visit when the progress Thein Sein promised has, in many cases, been slow to emerge.
To be sure, the country has made great strides. But the optimism that once radiated here has faded, tempered by the realization that, to transition successfully away from five decades under a military junta, Myanmar needs more than just the right words from its leaders and high-profile visits from an American president.
“It’s a very fluid situation right now inside of Burma,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Thursday before the meeting. “We have significant concerns that there has to be further follow-through.”
Obama’s meeting with Thein Sein, himself a former member of the junta, offered Obama his first major opportunity to address Myanmar’s state of affairs since he set off Sunday on a weeklong tour of Asia and Australia. But in China, on the first leg of the trip, Obama treaded lightly on human rights issues and other areas where pushing a firm stance could have upset his hosts.
On his first full day in Myanmar, Obama announced the U.S. would start sending Peace Corps volunteers there in late 2015. The White House said the volunteers would train for three months to learn Myanmar’s language, culture and technical needs, then serve at sites in Myanmar for two years.
Obama’s first encounter with Suu Kyi during his visit came Thursday at a sparsely equipped building in Naypyitaw, a city whose very existence is an ode both to Myanmar’s aspirations for democracy and its challenges in making it work. Carved from scratch out of scrubland in the early 2000s, Naypyitaw has the lush hotels and grandiose public buildings of a modern capital, but its vast empty spaces and eerily empty multilane highways have led to its reputation as a ghost town.
At the Parliamentary Resource Center, a hub for aid organizations, Obama told Suu Kyi and her fellow parliamentarians he was heartened by their determination to move ahead with the transition. He said in some ways, the questions facing Myanmar echo those that Americans have faced, like how to include minorities or prevent institutional discrimination.
“There are times when we’ll offer constructive criticism about a lack of progress,” Obama said. “But our consistent aim and goal will be to see that this transition is completed so that it delivers concrete benefits for the people”
Soe Thane, and former high-ranking junta leader now in Thein Sein’s government, said in an op-ed Thursday that Myanmar was determined to confront its challenges, including ending armed conflict with a groups, holding fair elections and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, home to the Rohingya people.
“All people in Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity or religion, deserve the same fundamental rights and freedoms,” he wrote in The New York Times.
White House officials said Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya was high on Obama’s agenda for his meeting with Thein Sein. Another key U.S. concern is the need for constitutional reforms, such as the elimination of a rule that is keeping Suu Kyi off the ballot because her sons hold British citizenship.
In a sign of Obama’s high regard for the opposition leader, when Obama called Thein Sein late last month to lay the groundwork for the visit, he placed a call the same day to Suu Kyi.
And when Obama flies Friday to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, he’ll not only meet with Suu Kyi but hold a joint news conference with her and visit the Secretariat, the infamous building where her father, Gen. Aung San, was assassinated.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Naypyitaw and AP writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.