News / Asia

Human Rights Issues, Burma Likely to Factor in Obama Asia Trip

U.S. officials say human rights issues are likely to be discussed during President Obama's upcoming visits next month to India and three other Asian democracies.

The first national election allowed by Burma's ruling military in two decades takes place on November 7, one day after President Obama arrives in India for a three-day stay at the beginning of his four nation Asian tour.

The United States, other governments, and human rights organizations say it's unlikely that the election in Burma can be free and fair.

Burmese democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (N.L.D.) won an overwhelming victory in a 1990 election, remains in house arrest. More than 2,000 political prisoners remain in jail.  

Burma's military formally dissolved the NLD earlier this year after it announced it would boycott the election. The military has also announced that foreign journalists will be not be allowed to cover the voting.

During a White House news briefing focusing on the Indian leg of President Obama's Asia trip, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns was asked if Mr. Obama will address human rights issues with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and at other points on the Asia trip.

Burns repeated the U.S. position that based on everything seen so far, there are serious doubts about whether the November 7 election can be free and fair. He repeated Washington's call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners.

He was non-commital about what the president may specifically discuss with Prime Minister Singh, but said the overall U.S emphasis on human rights issues will continue.

"We have a very active dialogue with India about a whole range of regional issues and that does include Burma, and so again I can't predict exactly what the conversations are going to be, but I think you will continue to see a strong emphasis from the president and from the U.S. on human rights issues across Asia and the Pacific," he said.

Deputy National Security Council Adviser for Strategic Communication, Ben Rhodes, said it is not a "coincidence" that President Obama is visiting four Asian democracies, since a key objective of the trip is to underscore the success of democracy in Asia and around the world.

Rhodes said the U.S. will "speak specifically to human rights and democracy issues in India and every stop during the president's trip," and indicated that Burma is likely to come up at some point.

"While I can't pre-judge the outcome of that election, we have expressed concerns about it in ASEAN. We have expressed it in our bilateral channels to key governments in the region. If the election does not meet the kinds of standards that we would like to see it meet, as Bill [Undersecretary Burns] said every indication is that it won't, I am sure it will be something that will come up during the course of the trip," Rhodes said.

The remarks are the first indication of the degree to which the election in Burma and its outcome may come into play in discussions President Obama holds, either in India, which has been expanding economic and trade ties with Burma, and his next stops in Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

The statements did little to clarify whether President Obama has moved closer to taking a step required under U.S. sanctions-related legislation -- appointing a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.

Earlier this year, the White House said it expected such an appointment to be made "soon".  NSC official Rhodes said only that it is something the administration is looking at, but added he would have nothing to say on it at at present.

The Obama administration has pursued a policy of engagement with Burma's military, hoping this would help encourage change, achieve freedom for political prisoners and Aung San Suu Kyi, and help bring about a legitimate political dialogue in the country.

Earlier this year, the administration said it fully expects this process to be long and difficult and "remains committed to continuing the policy" beyond the November 7 election in Burma.

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