Barack Obama voices alarm over Myanmar reforms, meets democracy icon

US President Barack Obama told Myanmar`s rulers its celebrated democratic reforms are backsliding, ahead of a regional summit Thursday designed to showcase the country`s transition from army-led isolation.

AFP| Last Updated: Nov 13, 2014, 19:23 PM IST

Naypyidaw: US President Barack Obama met with Myanmar democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday after voicing alarm the Southeast Asian nation`s much celebrated political reforms were backsliding.

The meeting took place in Myanmar`s capital, Naypyidaw, as Obama took time out from a summit that had been meant to heap praise on the country`s shift from army rule, but instead has highlighted growing concerns over the transition.

Obama met Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate, along with other Myanmar lawmakers to discuss the reforms, which began in 2011 when the military relinquished decades of rule that had made the nation a pariah state.

"It was an excellent discussion about this transition process that`s taking place here in Myanmar around consolidating some of the gains that have been made but also pushing the group (on democracy and human rights)," Obama said.

Obama was then set to raise a series of powderkeg rights issues in a meeting with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein -- a former general who has led the reforms -- late Thursday after the East Asia Summit closed. 

The US leader set the tone for his three-day trip to Myanmar with hard-hitting comments on the pace of reforms in an interview with news website The Irrawaddy published just before he arrived on Wednesday.

"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 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."

Obama planned to speak out on behalf of the nation`s Muslim Rohingya minority in "all of his engagements" in Myanmar, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters on Thursday.

Around 140,000 Rohingya languish in fetid displacement camps in western Rakhine State after religious violence flared two years ago, leaving scores of the minority dead and casting a dark cloud over the nation`s path to democracy.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday also raised the "serious humanitarian" condition of the Rohingya.Obama has framed Myanmar`s reform process as an example of the positive effects of US 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.

Most Western sanctions on Myanmar were dropped as it released political prisoners and loosened draconian press censorship, allowing a flurry of investor interest in the country seen as an exciting untapped market.

But, with the military still holding dominant positions and ethnic tensions flaring, questions have been raised around the world over whether the democratic process can be completed.

Activists have complained about the prosecutions of protesters and journalists, and the military shot dead one reporter last month in a volatile border area -- a killing referenced by Obama in his Irrawaddy interview.

Suu Kyi is also barred from the presidency due to a clause in the constitution that is widely regarded as having been written for her -- it rules out people with foreign spouses or whose children are foreign citizens.

Suu Kyi`s husband, who died in 1999, was British and they have two sons.

Suu Kyi is campaigning to change the constitution ahead of elections next year, and a debate on the issue began in parliament on Thursday.

Obama will hold more in-depth discussions with Suu Kyi on Friday in the commercial hub of Yangon, followed by a joint press conference.

International concerns have overshadowed what Myanmar`s government had hoped would be a celebration of the nation`s democratic achievements 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 G20 summit.