Obama warns against repression of Muslims in Myanmar

US President Barack Obama addresses young student leaders at the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) Town Hall during a visit to University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2014. US President Barack Obama warned on Sunday,
US President Barack Obama addresses young student leaders at the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) Town Hall during a visit to University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2014. US President Barack Obama warned on Sunday, April 27, 2014, that ethnic and religious conflicts could move Myanmar in a "very bad direction." -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - US President Barack Obama warned on Sunday that ethnic and religious conflicts could move Myanmar in a "very bad direction."

Mr Obama praised the "courageous process" of political reform taking place in a country formerly led by a military junta, but warned that democratisation after years of repression brought its own perils.

"Myanmar won't succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed," Mr Obama said at a "town hall" meeting during a visit to Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Mr Obama was referring to Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state which has been subject to persecution at the hands of Buddhist nationalists.

"The danger now that they are democratising is that there are different ethnic groups and different religions inside Myanmar," Mr Obama said.

"If people start organising politically around the religious identity or their ethnic identity... then you can actually start seeing conflicts... that could move Myanmar in a very bad direction."

"In particular, you have a Muslim minority inside Myanmar right now that the broader population has historically looked down upon and whose rights are not fully being protected."

Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been by plagued by religious unrest in recent years with at least 250 people killed in Buddhist-Muslim clashes since 2012. Thousands more people have been displaced.

Mr Obama made a triumphant visit to Myanmar in November 2012 and his administration has offered strong support to the government of President Thein Sein as it seeks to cement civilian rule.

Washington has for years been a strong supporter of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and backs efforts to amend the country's constitution so that she can run for president.

Mr Obama called during his inauguration in 2009 for authoritarian regimes to unclench their fists and embrace dialogue with the United States.

Unless Mr Obama's diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program evolves into a long-term rapprochement, Myanmar will stand as the only example of a nation to have accepted the call.