NAY PYI TAW: Fears that Myanmar’s reforms are stagnating are in the spotlight as it hosts US President Barack Obama on Thursday (Nov 13) during major regional summits showcasing the country’s giddying transition from army-led isolation to international player.
The US president echoed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday when he told Myanmar news website The Irrawaddy that while there has been progress on political and economic reforms, other areas such as press freedom and human rights for minorities have seen a “slowdown and backsliding”.
Suu Kyi, who will also meet Obama on Friday, has warned against “over-optimism” in the country, as it heads for crucial general elections next year.
Obama is in Naypyidaw for the first time after snubbing the sprawling purpose-built capital – which the junta named the “Abode of Kings” after constructing the vast new city in the central Myanmar tropical scrubland – during his previous brief visit in 2012.
He arrived fresh from hammering out a major deal with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that was lauded by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday as an important step in securing a global climate pact.
The US leader has framed Myanmar’s reform process, which began in 2011 when Thein Sein took the helm of a quasi-civilian government, as an example of the positive effects of Washington’s engagement.
But the country, which was stifled under military rule for almost half a century, has faced accusations that its ambitious transition has stuttered.
Suu Kyi is campaigning to change the junta-era constitution which currently bars her from the presidency, even if her party is successful in the polls, and earmarks a quarter of the legislature for unelected soldiers.
Another key focus of international concern is the plight of Muslim Rohingya trapped in desperate camps in western Rakhine state as a result of waves of bloodshed with local Buddhists two years ago.
Activists have also raised the alarm over a series of prosecutions against protesters and journalists, while one reporter was shot and killed by the military last month in a volatile border area.
Myanmar saw international fanfare and the removal of most Western sanctions as it released most political prisoners and called an end to draconian press censorship, allowing a flurry of interest in the country seen as an exciting virgin market for investors.
But the country still faces huge challenges as it heads towards the 2015 polls, particularly negotiating an end to multiple conflicts in ethnic border areas and translating the promise of reforms into benefits for ordinary people.
In the commercial hub Yangon, expectations for Obama’s trip are much more muted than his previous trip. “We are just normal people. I don’t think he can come down and see our situation, he will only be at the top level,” said 32-year-old Nyein Chan Kyaw. “After he came in 2012, things are the same.”