The heat is on Myanmar for its slow reforms, finally

President Barack Obama reaches to shakes hands with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Three years after Myanmar was celebrated for transitioning from a military junta to a semi-civilian government, world leaders are pressing the country for rights abuses and attacks on the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority. Both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Obama criticized the country as a part of their trips this week.

“Even as there has been some progress on the political and economic fronts, in other areas there has been a slowdown and backsliding in reforms. In addition to restrictions on freedom of the press, we continue to see violations of basic human rights and abuses in the country’s ethnic areas, including reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labor,” Obama said to the Burmese news site Irrawaddy, before his visit.

Obama followed through on his promise, say officials familiar with what was discussed during a private meeting with President Thein Sein. While Obama did not directly talk about the Rohingya in his public remarks during the visit, the AP reported today that he repeatedly pressed on their plight when speaking with Sein. It took a question from the press to finally get Obama to pointedly comment on the discrimination faced by the ethnic group, who are considered to be illegal migrants by Myanmar’s government.

“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,” Obama said

It is the second time that Obama has visited Myanmar. His first trip was about re-engaging with the country and its new government. Now he is set to apply pressure on Myanmar a year ahead of its next election. It is the same message that Ban carried to the country’s leaders while visiting earlier in the week for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Forum.

“I expressed my concern about the Rohingya population who face discrimination and violence,” Ban told reporters, describing his meeting with senior officials in the capital Naypyitaw. “I am urging that the human rights and human dignity of people in Rakhine state should be respected.”

The pressure from Ban and Obama comes two years after violence targeting the Rohingya forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. State sponsored ethnic attacks were carried out against Rohingya in Arakan state, leaving hundreds dead and more than 100,000 homeless.The height of violence passed, but 140,000 Rohingya have yet to return home and those in Arakan state are not free to move about.

The most significant number of displacements come from Rakhine and Kachin states. The U.N. estimates that 247,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar since 2011. However, humanitarian assistance is hampered by the government. Doctors Without Borders was kicked out of the country in February. It is still doing some work in the country, but operations are not in full swing.

Activists are applying more pressure on the international community in the run up to the general elections next fall. Human Rights Watch and others say that world leaders can apply pressure on the government to ensure that it maintains progress toward reforms. The New York Times editors specifically urged Obama to take a stronger stance on the country’s reforms.

“Officials in Myanmar saw the importance of engaging with the United States to put behind an era of sanctions and international isolation. Mr. Obama should firmly remind them that his administration still has tools to accelerate, or delay, that process,” according to the editorial.

Based on the remarks from Obama and Ban, it appears that the leaders are listening. Obama is set to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today in Yangon. She is a key figure in the country’s pro-democracy movement, but is unable to run for president next year.

“[The election] will shape how the United States engages with the country going forward,” said Obama.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.