US President Barack Obama used a historic speech in Myanmar today
to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine.
“There was no excuse for violence against innocent people," he
said while delivering a speech at Rangoon University.
Burma is on a "remarkable journey" of reform that has much further
to go, Obama said as he made the first visit to the South East
Asian nation by a serving US president. A desire for change had
been met by an agenda of reform, he said, and he was there to
extend a "hand of friendship".
Crowds of people, some waving US flags, lined the streets as he
arrived. The visit is intended to show support for the reforms put
in place by Thein Sein's government since the end of military rule
in November 2010. Activists have cautioned that the visit may be
too hasty - political prisoners remain behind bars and ethnic
conflicts in border areas are unresolved.
Obama is spending six hours in Burma but will not visit the
capital, Nay Pyi Taw. The highlight of his visit was a speech at
Rangoon University, which was at the heart of pro-democracy
protests in 1988 that were violently suppressed by the military
Addressing students, he said America
would help to rebuild Burma's economy and could be a partner on
its journey forward. Referencing his 20 January 2009 inauguration
speech in which he pledged the US would extend a hand to any
country that was willing to unclench its fist, he said : "Today
I've come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship."
"But this remarkable journey has
just begun, and has much further to go. Reforms launched from the
top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its
foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be
He called for an end to communal violence between Muslims and
Buddhists in Rakhine state that has left more than 100,000 people
displaced. They are mostly Muslim Rohingyas who are stateless and
face severe discrimination in Burma. "National reconciliation will
take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the
sake of this country's future, it is necessary to stop the
incitement and to stop violence," he said.
Earlier, Obama met President Thein Sein, saying the reform process
"here in Myanmar... is one that can lead to incredible development
He used the country name preferred
by the government - it is not clear whether this represents a
policy shift. He then met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at
the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest. She
thanked the US for its support but warned that difficult times
could lie ahead.
"The most difficult time in any
transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said,
saying people should not be "lured by a mirage of success".
The US president and his team also
made a brief stop at Shwedagon Pagoda, the Rangoon landmark that
has been at the heart of many key moments in the country's
history. Obama is being accompanied by US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton - who returns to Burma almost a year after her
Meanwhile, Myanmar released dozens of political prisoners Monday
in an amnesty coinciding with a landmark visit by Obama, AFP
reported quoting a pro-democracy activist.
Soe Tun, a leader of the 88
Generation student movement, said 44 political prisoners were
released on Monday, and called for "all political prisoners" to be
The pardon was confirmed by a senior
member of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for
Democracy party, who said 56 dissidents had been freed since
Sunday, among them four NLD members. Estimates vary of the number
of political detainees.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a
Thailand-based campaign group, put the figure at 283 last month,
before Monday's amnesty. Myanmar has come under intense pressure
to free scores of dissidents believed to be languishing inside its
jails, with the international community calling for their freedom
in return for warming relations with the former pariah state.
On Sunday Myanmar said it would
review prisoner cases in line with "international standards" and
open its jails to the Red Cross, as part of efforts to burnish its
reform credentials. In a statement issued on the eve of Obama's
visit, the Myanmar government also said it would invite the UN
High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in the
former army-ruled nation.
Reports indicate that Myanmar is under immense pressure to stop
unabated violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims, which is
allegedly being orchestrated by security forces in tandem with a
political party supporting the radical nationalists.
Taking the issue under
consideration, Southeast Asian leaders attending the annual
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has decided to put
pressure on Myanmar to resolve violence between Buddhists and
minority Muslims, a senior regional official said yesterday.
The unrest has left scores dead and
as many as 100,000 people displaced since June. President Thein
Sein has blamed nationalist and religious extremists for unrest in
June and October that killed at least 167 people, but has faced
criticism for failing to address underlying tensions in Rakhine
State, where an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims are not
recognized as citizens.
At least “800,000 people are now
under tremendous pressure,” the AEAN Secretary-General Surin
Pitsuwan told reporters on the sidelines of the summit in the
Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
“If that issue is not handled well
and effectively, there is a risk of extremism,” he said.
Surin said he expected ASEAN leaders
to raise the issue with Myanmar, which is a member of the bloc,
during bilateral talks.
The ASEAN chief admitted the
Rohingya Muslims were the victims of “disturbing” ethnic violence,
but stopped short of calling the bloodshed genocide.
He did not agree with the
Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which on Saturday had called
the Rohingya victims of “genocide”.
A Reuters investigation painted a
troubling picture of organized attacks led by Rakhine nationalists
tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by
Buddhist monks and, some witnesses said, abetted by local security