News / Asia

Burma to Welcome Obama for Historic Visit

Daniel Schearf
Barack Obama is set to become the first U.S. president to visit Burma on November 19, in what is seen as encouragement for President Thein Sein's reforms.  But human-rights groups say the visit comes too soon because Burmese reforms are fragile and oppression continues in Kachin and Rakhine states. 

Burma is set to welcome U.S. President Barack Obama for meetings with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Newspaper seller Oo Zay Yar says the nation welcomes Obama and hopes his visit can help push moves toward democracy even further.

"I am proud of my country because Obama is coming to visit.  I hope many political changes can happen after his visit.  Economic development can happen as well," said Oo Zay Yar.

The historic trip will be the second time that Obama will sit down with the former political prisoner, now politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, and his first one-on-one meeting with the Burma's president.

A former prime minister in the country's military government, Thein Sein and the opposition leader have driven reforms.  And Obama's visit is intended to support their efforts.  But the Asia Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, says Obama's trip is premature.

"We still have hundreds of political prisoners in prison.  We have a whole raft of rights repressive laws, administrative decrees, that the government has not even touched, has not even mentioned that they will repeal," said Robertson.
 
Robertson also notes ongoing fighting with rebels in Kachin state and recent violence directed at Muslims in Rakhine, also known as Arakan.

"The violence that took place in June has now expanded to new areas within Arakan state, and there are still other areas where it could spread further, unless action is taken because the underlying forces here and the underlying root causes have not been addressed by the government," he said.

The director of Bangkok's Institute of Security and International Studies, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, says Obama's visit needs to strike a balance.

"The Obama administration has to show that reforms are rewarded.  The lifting of sanctions and re-engagement by the private sector of the U.S.  Thein Sein has to show his people that there are some fruits from reform," said Pongsudhirak.

Tun Linn Aung says his parents worked this juice stand for 30 years, and he hopes Obama's visit will bring more American investment and better jobs.

"I do not think his trip is too early.  I think this is the right time.  Now our country has already passed the transitional period," said Tun Linn Aung.

In recognition of progress, the United States already has suspended tough economic sanctions against Burma and sent its first ambassador to Rangoon in more than two decades.

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