US President Barack Obama mounted a warm show of support Friday for Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, voicing opposition to a constitutional rule that’s preventing the pro-democracy icon from seeking the presidency next year. While crediting Myanmar for progress in its transition to democracy, he offered a blunt assessment of the distressing shortcomings that have called that transition into question.
In his joint appearance with Suu Kyi, on the back porch of her lakeside home, Obama stopped short of an explicit endorsement for her potential campaign for president. But his affection and deep admiration for Suu Kyi was clear, from his praise for her efforts to liberalize the government to the ease with which he whispered in her ear as they walked arm in arm into the home where she was once confined as a political prisoner.
Although Obama was quick to caution he didn’t want to dictate how Myanmar should pick its next president, he said told President Thein Sein the night before that he saw little wisdom in a rule barring the 69-year-old Suu Kyi from running next year because her children hold British citizenship.
“I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Suu Kyi, a member of Parliament demure in her support for changing that provision, said it was flattering to have a constitution written with her in mind. But she said that wasn’t how it should be done in a democracy, urging supporters not to get too caught up in whether she wins next year’s pivotal elections.
“Of course any party wants to win the elections – I’m sure the president will tell you that,” she said with a grin. What’s more important, she said, is how you win. “I’d rather lose than win in the wrong way.”
Obama and Suu Kyi took questions from reporters on the final day of Obama’s visit to Myanmar, an impoverished country struggling to reinvent itself. Obama is heavily invested in Myanmar’s progress, having made a historic trip here two years ago to signal a strong US commitment to democratization in the country and the broader region.
On this visit, prompted by economic summits in the capital city of Naypyitaw, Obama faced profound concerns by Myanmar’s citizens that its transition to democracy is backsliding. At a town hall meeting Friday with young Southeast Asians – itself a rarity in a country ruled by its military for half a century – Obama told an ebullient crowd their generation has more potential than any before to shape Myanmar’s society.
“The future of this region – your region – is not going to be dictated by dictator or by armies,” Obama said. “It’s going to be determined by entrepreneurs and inventors and dreamers.”
Left unaddressed by Obama during his two days in Myanmar was growing skepticism about whether Suu Kyi, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is willing to fight as vigorously for human rights and tolerance as she is for democratic reforms. The US has deep concerns about the abuse of Rohingya Muslims, a minority group deeply disdained by most in the majority-Buddhist country, but Suu Kyi has resisted calls to speak out on their behalf.
Asked by an American journalist about the plight of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi wouldn’t even say their name. That’s a position shared by Myanmar’s government, which deems the roughly 1.3 million Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh and says the Rohingya ethnicity does not exist.
“If you ask how do we propose to resolve all these problems of violence between communities, between ethnic groups, we’ve got to start with rule of law,” Suu Kyi said, speaking in general terms. “People who feel threatened are not going to sit down and sort out their problems.”
Obama, for his part, did use the term “Rohingya” and said discrimination against them wasn’t consistent with the kind of country Myanmar wants to become. “Ultimately that is destabilizing to a democracy,” he said.
Notably, Obama chose to hold his news conference in Myanmar with Suu Kyi instead of with Thein Sein, the face of Myanmar’s mixed evolution away from autocratic rule. Sitting down with Thein Sein the evening before in his opulent, moat-enclosed palace, Obama credited his leadership for putting Myanmar on a democratic path, even as he pressed him on the Rohingya and on his slow walk on political reforms.
“We recognize that change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line,” Obama said.
The setting for Obama’s visit with Suu Kyi was a stark change from Naypyitaw, where Obama met with Thein Sein and attended two east Asian regional summits.
In Yangon, Myanmar’s bustling and chaotic commercial capital, children in traditional dress lined the streets as Obama drove to Suu Kyi’s compound. In Naypyitaw, a city built literally from scratch in the last decade, Obama’s motorcade sped down empty eight-lane highways past five-star hotels and gaudy public fountains in near-silence, rarely encountering anyone on the streets. Other parts of Myanmar are very rural and very poor, dotted by refugee camps and armed ethnic groups that have been fighting with the government for decades.