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Obama to take 'broad and long view' of democracy in Myanmar

US President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar takes place amidst calls on the US to up the pressure on Naypyidaw to jump start stalling political reforms. Brookings fellow Lynn Kuok tells DW what to expect from his trip.

Obama will attend the East Asia Summit and the US-ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, where he will meet with Myanmar's President Thein Sein. He is also scheduled to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi later in the week. The visit is part of the US president's six-day trip to Asia-Pacific, which includes stops in China and Australia.

Thein Sein's quasi-civilian regime has earned international praise for undertaking political and economic reforms that have resulted in the lifting of most Western sanctions. However, 69-year-old Suu Kyi, who is currently barred from running for president, recently decried that the reform process had stalled long ago and that the international community's faith in Myanmar's military-dominated government came too early and too fast. The government also faces growing criticism over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine.

Suu Kyi is not allowed to run for president in 2015 because of a clause in the junta-drafted constitution barring anyone with a foreign spouse or children from taking the top political office - the late husband of the Nobel laureate was British, as are her two sons.

Lynn Kuok

Kuok: 'Washington is focusing on how to positively support efforts to promote reforms'

Dr. Lynn Kuok, a fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, says in a DW interview that while President Obama will urge constitutional change in Myanmar, he is going to be speaking in broad terms, and that Myanmar's slowing progress will be met by withholding carrots rather than wielding a big stick.

DW: Some US officials were quoted as saying that despite hailing Aung San Suu Kyi as "an icon of democracy," US President Barack Obama was quietly acquiescing to the Myanmar government's decision to bar her from running for the presidency in next year's election. What is your view on this?

Lynn Kuok: The Obama administration is going to be guided by a number of factors in deciding how hard to push for constitutional change that would pave the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. The first is ensuring that Myanmar continues on a democratic path. In this respect, the signs are that the administration is going to be taking both a broad and a long view of democracy.

Second, the US administration is going to be wary of being seen to impose democracy from the outside. Third, the administration has held Myanmar up as a foreign policy success. Coming down too heavily on Myanmar now would undermine this narrative and potentially weaken the hands of moderates within the Myanmar government.

Finally, there is the issue of China, which is almost always a part of calculations relating to Asia these days. It is not altogether clear that anything would be achieved by coming down too hard on Naypyidaw, save to encourage it to strengthen ties with Beijing. A downturn in relations with Myanmar might also affect the United States' relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an integral part of its engagement with Asia.

Given these considerations, President Obama is likely to raise the need for "inclusive and credible" 2015 elections and to make the case for constitutional reform being in Myanmar's best interests. However, he is going to be speaking in broad terms so as not to commit his administration to a single vision of what constitutes an acceptable election.

Given this approach, what impact is President Obama's visit likely to have on Suu Kyi's chances of running for the presidency?

President Obama's visit is unlikely to have any direct impact on Suu Kyi's chances of running for the presidency. While he will urge constitutional change, short of Myanmar seriously reversing course, the slowing progress in Myanmar is likely to be met by the withholding of carrots, rather than a big stick. In recognition of this, Suu Kyi was recently reported as saying to a group of Western visitors that Obama should not bother going to Myanmar if the administration was not going to take a tough stance against the government.

What issues are expected to be on the agenda when Obama meets Thein Sein? Are any breakthroughs expected?

The issues that are likely to be on the agenda are the Rakhine State, including the need to address the dire humanitarian situation and revise the Rakhine State Action Plan; the peace process and concluding a national ceasefire agreement; as well as constitutional reform and press freedoms to achieve an inclusive and credible process for the 2015 elections. In addition, the release of additional political prisoners and judicial reform might also be discussed.

No significant breakthroughs are expected and senior members of the Obama administration have sought to manage expectations by framing President Obama's trip as an opportunity to check-in on the reform process.

Thein Sein recently held rare roundtable talks with the country's opposition and other political stakeholders. At the same time, Suu Kyi said Myanmar's reform process is "stalling," warning the United States against over-optimism. How do you view this development?

It is undeniable that the reform process is slowing down in some respects. The Myanmar government has picked much of the low-hanging fruits, such as the release of some (but not all) political prisoners. The structural challenges that remain will require sustained and often painstaking efforts to tackle.

The appetite for reform is likely to further diminish as the 2015 elections draw closer. But this is so not just on the government's part, but also the opposition's—Suu Kyi has already been criticized for not denouncing human rights abuses against the Rohingya, civilians in Kachin and journalists. The notable exception to a waning enthusiasm for reform is the national ceasefire, which President Thein Sein is likely to want to push to conclude before elections as a measurable sign of success.

It is not accurate, however, to say that the United States is "over-optimistic" about the reform process. It is going in with its eyes open. In seeking to balance public criticism with encouragement, the administration is adopting a pragmatic approach that recognizes democracy as a process and sees little to be gained from reverting to a hard line stance.

Washington is instead focusing on how to positively support efforts to promote reforms. In this respect, while elections are important, urging and supporting efforts to improve race and religious relations is critical and must not be neglected. Violence, particularly in Myanmar's geographical center, could result in backsliding.

US President Barack Obama, right, watches as Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, center, greets former US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton at her residence in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/dapd

Kuok: 'Obama's visit is unlikely to have any direct impact on Suu Kyi's chances of running for the presidency'

Myanmar faces accusations of human rights abuses. How much has really changed in this respect in the last year?

A Human Rights Watch Report (2014) describes Myanmar's progress for 2013 as "uneven." Under improvements, it lists basic freedoms of assembly and association, though these laws are sometime applied inconsistently. It notes the release of 69 political prisoners in November 2013 alone. Myanmar's parliament receives praise for proving "a robust venue" for debate and legislative reform.

A more mixed report emerges in the area of media freedoms, which has seen rollbacks. In early October, a journalist died under mysterious circumstances after being detained by the military while covering clashes between the army and ethnic rebels. The same goes for the country's legislative reform process, which HRW considers "opaque." Longstanding repressive laws remain on the books and are used to target activists. While important laws relating to land rights and farmers rights were enacted in 2013, concerns remain that they are insufficient to protect against mass land grabs.

HRW condemned continued targeting of Muslim communities, including in the Rakhine State, and the "serious" human rights violations in ethnic areas, despite the conclusion of ceasefire agreements between the government and many armed ethnic groups.

Dr. Lynn Kuok is a non-resident fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Kuok researches nationalism and race and religious relations in Southeast Asia, as well as the international politics and security of the Asia-Pacific region.