On his first state visit to Burma, German President Joachim Gauck expressed his admiration for the country's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But he also described the ethnic clashes in the Asian nation as worrisome.
Students dressed in green and white uniforms stood side by side with security officers along the empty multilane road linking the airport to the capital Naypyidaw. They waved German and Burmese flags as the motorcade of the German president passed by on Monday, February 10.
A few journalists accompanying the head of state waved back and stared at a giant flower sculpture standing in the middle of a roundabout, under which a woman wearing a straw hat was cutting a hedge. Uniformed students waving flags were also waiting in front of the presidential palace.
Once in the palace, Gauck said he had come to Burma, also known as Myanmar, to pay tribute to the "historic transformation" the Asian country had been undergoing.
Gauck said Myanmar can count on Germany if the Asian nation continues on its route towards democracy
The country, which was ruled by a military dictatorship for decades, has been cautiously striding towards democracy under the presidency of former army general Thein Sein.
Germany and the international community are observing the country's transformation "with great sympathy and attention," said Gauck. The German president cited the ceasefire agreements with most armed minorities, the release of political prisoners, the lifting of a ban on certain political parties to contest elections and the ongoing constitutional reforms as signs of president Thein Sein's seriousness in staying the reform course.
Yet despite the progress, Gauck stated he did not want to conceal his discontent with the reports of violence in the province of Rakhine and the unresolved legal situation of the Rohingya, a muslim minority ethnic group living in the country since the British colonial rule. The government refuses to grant the Rohingyas Burmese citizenship, categorizing them as “immigrated foreigners.” Referring to the recent violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, Gauck said: “The clashes bring suffering and misfortune."
The German head of state said that in light of these conflicts it was important to bring together the various parties involved. Before reconciliation could become a reality, all groups would have to strive for peaceful coexistence, he said, adding that Germany was willing to offer Burma its support with this difficult task.
Gauck's visit alongside the signing of a debt restructuring agreement, waiving almost half of the Asian country's debts of 1.6 billion USD, could open a new chapter in German-Burmese ties.
President Gauck later met Burma's opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who thanked him for his critical remarks. “It is a pleasure and encouragement to meet and interact with a president who also lived under a dictatorship and experienced a democratic transition,” said Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi's staff members had asked Germany to show solidarity and continue to monitor the developments in Burma, said Gauck, who paid tribute to the Nobel laureate by describing her as a "freedom fighter without fundamentalism" and one of his political icons.
Suu Kyi is one his idols, the president said, "partly because she has been willing to make compromises for the sake of achieving basic values and objectives," Gauck told the media after the meeting with the opposition leader.
However, hardliners within Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party have criticized her for participating in the political transformation process, which is currently being implemented by the military.
According to a constitutional clause - which observers claim was directed against her - Suu Kyi is barred from running for president as she was married to a foreigner. But in the intense discussions taking place on the subject, many agree that this obstacle must be removed to make way for a potential candidacy, a participant in these talks said cautiously.
As the bus carrying journalists headed back to the airport after the meeting, the flower sculpture was brightly lit. Students were sitting by the roadside waving their flags, as the motorcade raced towards the airport.