Myanmar’s military must reduce its role in politics and transition into civilian oversight as the Southeast nation proceeds with democratic change, U.S. President Barack Obama told lawmakers Thursday during his second visit to the country in as many years.
Obama, who arrived in Myanmar on Thursday to attend the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in the capital Naypyidaw, met with a small group of parliamentarians in a closed-door roundtable discussion on reform in the fledgling democracy, which emerged in 2011 from five decades of military rule.
“When we met, the role of the army was the main discussion—that the army should be under civilian society,” MP Hpyu Hpyu Thin told RFA’s Myanmar Service of the meeting, which also included opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who is head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“He commented on the reduction of the role of the army during the reform period and giving minorities their rights,” she said.
“Otherwise, the country’s future could not be good. Therefore, [he said,] everyone should work hard and cooperate to amend the constitution.”
Hpyu Hpyu Thin said lawmakers also discussed Myanmar’s current political situation, including proposed constitutional changes, with the U.S. president.
Obama did not press lawmakers to amend the country’s 2008 junta-backed constitution to specifically enable Aung San Suu Kyi to run in next year’s national elections, she said.
Article 59(F) of the charter prohibits her from running because her two sons are British citizens.
‘Work not yet done’
Obama provided further details about the meeting during remarks he made afterwards at the Parliamentary Resources Center in Naypyidaw.
“The work is not yet done, and the goal of the United States here is to be a strong partner in the [transition] process,” he said, according to remarks provided by the White House.
“Like every good friend, we will praise what works. There will be times where we offer constructive criticism about a lack of progress in certain areas or where reform efforts have stalled.”
He said his discussion with parliamentarians included topics that would be familiar to every country—the protection of minority rights, how majority parties and opposition parties work together, and how to prevent acrimony or institutional entrenchment that would erode democracy.
He said other items of discussion included conflicts between ethnic groups, the government, and Myanmar’s powerful military.
“There are certain unique circumstances involved in this transition,” Obama said, such as Myanmar’s large number of ethnic groups, armed conflicts between ethnic groups and the government, and the powerful military’s changeover to greater civilian participation.
At a meeting with President Thein Sein later on Thursday, Obama urged Myanmar’s leader to continue the country’s transformation to democracy, pursue political and constitutional reforms, and end the persecution of Muslims in Rakhine state.
“We had the opportunity to discuss elections that are scheduled for next year and the need for those elections to be fair, inclusive, transparent, and that the constitutional amendment process that has begun needs to reflect the ability of all voices in Myanmar’s society to participate,” Obama said, according to remarks provided by the White House.
The two also discussed the “need to work towards a situation in which the Muslim minority [in Rakhine state] is protected and their rights are respected, and they are able to fully enjoy the opportunities of this society,” Obama said.
The president is on a three-day official visit to Myanmar as part of a week-long tour of Asia that also includes China and Australia. He is scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday in the commercial capital Yangon.
Late last month, Obama placed separate calls to Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, stressing the need to address communal tensions, forge a nationwide cease-fire pact, and hold credible general elections next year.
He made the calls just ahead of a meeting between Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing, and leaders of other political parties and ethnic groups to discuss Myanmar’s political problems.
Obama’s comments come a day after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on the government to uphold the rights of the country’s Rohingyas, an ethnic minority Muslim group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Ban had expressed concerns about a state plan to grant Rohingyas, who face discrimination and violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, second-class citizenship if they pass a residency requirement and to expel the rest.
In an op-ed commentary published in Thursday’s New York Times, Soe Thane, a former military junta leader who is a minister in the office of President Thein Sein, said the country must succeed in its transition to democracy, but first had to overcome several obstacles.
Among them are the continued influence of the country’s former military dictatorship, limited institutional capacity, and ending armed conflicts between ethnic groups and the government, as well as the humanitarian crisis and communal violence in Rakhine state.
The government has held talks with nearly two dozen of Myanmar’s armed ethnic rebel groups with the ultimate goal of forging a nationwide cease-fire agreement.
“We are a small nation between giant neighbors, poor and isolated for decades, with entrenched systems and views that have grown up over generations, now trying decisively to move toward peace and democracy,” he wrote. “It is a grand experiment, but we are determined to succeed.”
Reported by Ma Way Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.