Making his second visit to once-isolated Myanmar, President Barack Obama voiced support Friday for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, expressing his opposition to a constitutional rule that is preventing the pro-democracy icon from seeking the presidency next year.
While crediting Myanmar for progress in its transition to democracy, he offered a blunt assessment of the distressing shortcomings that have called that transition into question.
In his joint appearance with Suu Kyi on the back porch of her lakeside home, Obama stopped short of an explicit endorsement for her potential campaign for president. But his affection and deep admiration for his fellow Nobel peace laureate was clear, from his praise for her efforts to liberalize the government to the ease with which he whispered in her ear as they walked arm in arm into the home where she was once confined as a political prisoner.
Although Obama was quick to caution he did not want to dictate how Myanmar should pick its next president, he said he had told President Thein Sein Thursday that he saw little wisdom in a rule barring the 69-year-old Suu Kyi from running next year because her children — whose late father was English — hold British citizenship.
“I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Suu Kyi, a member of Parliament, said it was flattering to have a constitution written with her in mind. But she urged supporters not to get too caught up in whether she wins next year’s pivotal elections.
“Of course any party wants to win the elections — I’m sure the president will tell you that,” she said with a grin. What is more important, she said, is how you win. “I’d rather lose than win in the wrong way.”
Obama and Suu Kyi took questions from reporters on the final day of Obama’s visit to Myanmar, an impoverished country struggling to reinvent itself. Obama is heavily invested in Myanmar’s progress, having made a historic trip here two years ago to signal a strong U.S. commitment to its democratization.
On this visit, prompted by economic summits in the capital city of Naypyitaw, Obama faced profound concerns by Myanmar’s citizens that its transition to democracy is backsliding. At a town hall meeting Friday with young Southeast Asians — itself a rarity in a country ruled by its military for half a century — Obama told an ebullient crowd their generation has more potential than any before to shape Myanmar’s society.
“The future of this region — your region — is not going to be dictated by dictator or by armies,” Obama said. “It’s going to be determined by entrepreneurs and inventors and dreamers.”
Left unaddressed by Obama during his two days in Myanmar was growing skepticism about whether Suu Kyi is willing to fight as vigorously for human rights and tolerance as she is for democratic reforms. The U.S. has deep concerns about the abuse of Rohingya Muslims, a minority group deeply disdained by most in the majority-Buddhist country, but Suu Kyi has resisted calls to speak out on their behalf.
Asked by an American journalist about the plight of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi would not even say their name — a position shared by Myanmar’s government, which deems the roughly 1.3 million Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
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