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In Myanmar, Obama calls for end to Rakhine state violence

Monday November 19, 2012 10:09:41 PM, IINA

Yangon: 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 regime.


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 extinguished."

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 opportunities".


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 first visit.

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 freed.


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 forces.




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