U.S. President Barack Obama held talks over the telephone Thursday with Myanmar President Thein Sein and opposition leader 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 separate calls hours before Thein Sein was scheduled to host an unprecedented meeting Friday with Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the country’s powerful military chief and leaders of other political parties and ethnic groups aimed at grappling with the country’s political problems.
Obama, who is scheduled to make his second visit to Myanmar in mid-November, discussed with Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi the status of Myanmar's ongoing political and economic reforms and the need for an "inclusive and credible process" for conducting the 2015 general elections elections, the White House said in a statement.
Obama gave the United States’ "firm commitment to helping the people" of Myanmar "achieve a more free, open, and prosperous nation," it said.
The statement said the U.S. leader stressed the importance for Thein Sein's government to take "additional steps to address the tensions and the humanitarian situation" in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where bloody communal violence between majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Muslim Rohingyas since 2012 has left more than 280 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
Human rights groups have accused the Myanmar authorities of discriminating against the Muslim Rohingya community, who they say bore the brunt of the violence. Rakhine Buddhists however accuse aid groups of favoring the Rohingyas, most of whom are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in Myanmar for decades.
Obama called Thursday for revisions to the Rakhine Action Plan, which U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says would entrench discriminatory policies that deprive Rohingyas of Myanmar citizenship and lead to the forced resettlement of over 130,000 displaced Rohingya into closed camps.
Human Rights Watch had called on Myanmar's international donors, the United Nations, and other influential actors to press Thein Sein's government to substantively revise or rescind the plan.
Obama also called for other measures "to support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya population."
The U.S. leader welcomed Thein Sein's commitment to the peace process, saying "every effort should be made conclude a national cease-fire in the short term."
The Myanmar government is negotiating with the country’s ethnic armed groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement, though the process has been repeatedly delayed.
Any agreement is to be followed by political dialogue with ethnic groups aimed at giving greater powers to ethnic states as well as giving them greater representation in parliament.
But the powerful military has refused to give up its veto on making any changes to the country's constitution, which are key to giving ethnic groups greater powers.
President Obama also underscored "the need for an inclusive and credible process" for conducting the 2015 elections, the White House statement said.
Aung San Suu Kyi may not be able to become president if her National League for Democracy (NLD) party wins the elections.
The constitution bars her from becoming leader of the country because her two sons are not Myanmar citizens, and the ruling party and the military are reluctant to amend the charter to pave the way for her to be in the running for the presidency.
The White House said Obama also discussed with Aung San Suu Kyi "how the United States can support efforts to promote tolerance, respect for diversity, and a more inclusive political environment."
Since the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi has been pushing for talks on Myanmar’s political reform process with Thein Sein, Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, and military commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing, all of whom are to attend Friday’s meeting at the president's residence in the capital Naypyidaw.
Some political party leaders have questioned whether Thein Sein had arranged the meeting solely to demonstrate to Obama and other world leaders that he is serious in his reform efforts, considering recent criticism over the delay in forging a nationwide cease-fire with armed rebel groups and the refusal by the military to give up its veto power in parliament.
“If this meeting is just to appease the world leaders who will be visiting, then it is up to the people who will be attending the meeting [to do something],” said Khin Maung Swe, chairman of the Federal Democratic Alliance (FDA), a coalition of nine political and ethnic parties and a leading official of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF) party.
Myanmar will next month host a high-level meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit.
Obama will attend the East Asia Summit with leaders from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand as well as the 10 Southeast Asian nations.