In his address to the Australian Parliament Wednesday, President Obama encouraged Burma’s recent steps towards reform, while also urging that more be done.
Praising “institutions upon which good governance depends,” human rights, an informed citizenry, and open government, the president said “these principles have guided our approach to Burma, with a combination of sanctions and engagement.”
President Obama mentioned how Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from her 15 years of house arrest, and noted that some “political prisoners have been released, and the government has begun a dialogue. Still, violations of human rights persist. So we will continue to speak clearly about the steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States.”
Hours later, as President Obama touched down in Bali, Indonesia, where he will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference, that regional body announced that Burma – currently called Myanmar — would chair the organization in 2014, an indication that the other 9 members had confidence that Burma would continued moving in a progressive direction.
“Be assured that we are now growing into a democratic society and we will do all our responsibilities and duties as a responsible government, reflecting the desires of the Myanmar people,” said Ko Ko Hlaing, the top political adviser to the Myanmar president, as reported by Reuters. “We will do what we have to do as a democratic government and a democratic society. As a family, ASEAN nations have welcomed Myanmar to be a responsible chairman.”
While previous US presidents refused to engage with Burma because of its human rights abuses and refusal to recognize basic democratic values, President Obama opted for a strategy of engagement. At the ASEAN conference in 2009, President Obama directly discussed with Burmese General Thein Sein the need to end the house arrest of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In the past, the US had refused to attend the ASEAN conference because of Burma’s membership.
The following year, in India, the president condemned Burma’s government. “When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed, as in Burma, then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent,” he said. “For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protesters and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade. It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.”