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Obama Hits Out at Myanmar Ban on Aung San Suu Kyi's Presidential Bid

The two Nobel Peace Prize Winners delivered a less-than-glowing assessment of Myanmar's transition to democracy and its treatment of Rohingya Muslims during their meeting in Yangon.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 14 2014, 5:20pm

Photo via Reuters

US President Barack Obama on Friday threw his weight behind Aung San Suu Kyi's bid to lift a constitutional rule that prevents her running for Myanmar's presidency, as the opposition leader condemned the ban as "unjust and undemocratic."

Suu Kyi is currently barred from standing in next year's election because of a provision in the country's new constitution that stops candidates with foreign relatives from entering the race. Suu Kyi was married to a British man, and her two sons hold UK passports. 

The two Nobel Laureates met on Friday at Suu Kyi's home in Yangon, Myanmar, where she spent 11 years under house arrest until the country's military junta began a process of democratic reform and released her in 2010.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, two years into her detention.

Obama said that though it was up to the people of the country to decide their own rules, there were certain provisions in the current constitution that "objectively don't make much sense."

"For example," he added: "I don't understand a provision that would bar someone from running for president because of who their children are."

Suu Kyi said that her opposition party want this provision to be changed "not because we want to win a case, but because we think certain constitutional amendments are necessary if this country is to be a truly functional democracy in line with the will of the people."

She added: "Winning is not everything. It's how you win. I'd rather lose than win in the wrong way."

While Suu Kyi is widely celebrated for being the peaceful face of Myanmar politics, she has also faced criticism for failing to speak out about some of the human rights abuses occurring in the country, particularly the violence being carried out against the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic group that Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has called "one of the most despised minorities in the world."

'Do whatever you want to civilians': Myanmar military accused of war crimes on eve of Obama visit. Read more here.

Rohingya advocates were simply hoping for a mention during the US president's trip to Myanmar, and in the question and answer session — following a reporter's question about reforms in the country — Obama obliged. "Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be," he said.

The group in general lack any political voice. The violence against them is believed to be escalating, and an estimated 16,000 have fled Burma by sea since mid-October. Rohingya women have been subject to systematic rape by Burmese security forces.

Speaking about the development of Myanmar since the military junta was dissolved in 2011, Obama said: "In the past few years important changes have been made. The economy has begun to grow, political prisoners have been set free, there are more newspapers and media outlets, children have been released from the military, and these are all important changes that have opened up greater opportunity for the people of Burma. 

"At the same time it's clear how much hard work remains to be done and that many difficult choices still lie ahead."

The US could not be complacent, he said, adding that reform was "by no means complete or irreversible."

Suu Kyi also sounded a less than positive note about the state of the country, saying that the process of reform was going through a "bumpy patch."

Simon Billenness, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma told VICE News that he thought Obama's trip had been a success, particularly given that he had "spoken out forcefully about the rule of law" and had "pointed at the two big elephants in the room": the constitutional prohibition on Suu Kyi running for president, and the regime's treatment of the Rohingya. However Billenness said that now that those issues have been articulated, the pressure to stop Myanmar's "backslide" must continue.

"I think the US needs to back up this visit with action, and I think sanctions should be on the table."

Obama was in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw on Thursday for the second ASEAN-US summit, where he also met with Myanmar president Thein Sein. Obama said they discussed how the US could help Burma move towards a civilian government.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the violent politics of peace. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd