NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar : US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday warned Myanmar it had a long way to go in its transition from military rule to democracy and raised concerns over the progress of reforms, State Department officials said.
Washington’s top diplomat told Myanmar’s President Thein Sein that while the United States acknowledged sweeping changes in the once-isolated Southeast Asian nation, fears remained over press freedom and religious unrest. ‘We have seen remarkable progress over the past few years, but there is a long way to go,’ said a State Department official, adding that the US urged Myanmar to take actions to show that reforms were not ‘slowing down or regressing’.
Kerry said it was ‘impossible not to be impressed’ by the former pariah nation’s reforms since 2011, which have seen most Western sanctions scrapped.
‘As Myanmar tackles the challenges ahead I want the people of Myanmar to know that they have the support and the friendship of the United States,’ he said, ahead of a meeting with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Thein Sein, a former general who shed his military uniform to lead a quasi-civilian government three years ago, has been praised for broad reforms including freeing political prisoners, scrapping draconian press censorship and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament. But a second State Department official said the country was facing more complex issues as it heads towards crucial 2015 elections that are likely to be won by Suu Kyi’s opposition.
‘They are now facing some (of) the deepest challenges - what it means to change the governance structure of the country. And that has produced predictably some resistance, some slowdown,’ the official said. In ‘candid’ discussions, Kerry raised specific concerns over recent journalist arrests, religious violence and the severe health crisis in western Rakhine state caused by chronic disruption to humanitarian access.
Deadly clashes in Rakhine two years ago have left some 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya Muslims, trapped in miserable displacement camps with scant access to basic services and work. Violence has since erupted sporadically across the country, most recently in the second largest city of Mandalay. ‘One thing we are trying to explain to them is that time is not on their side, it is a less stable situation now on the ground that it was two years ago,’ the first official said.