NAYPYIDAW (REUTERS, AFP) - Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi asked to be given “enough space” to address the plight of her country’s Rohingya Muslim population, as visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed the Nobel laureate to promote respect for human rights.
Some 125,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain displaced and face severe travel restrictions in camps since fighting erupted in Rakhine State between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Thousands have fled persecution and poverty.
The United States has long supported Suu Kyi’s role in championing democratic change in Myanmar, but was surprised this month when she suggested to the new US ambassador Scot Marciel to refrain from using the term Rohingya for the persecuted Muslim minority.
“Emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution to our problems,” Suu Kyi told reporters at a joint news conference with Kerry in Naypyitaw on Sunday after their first meeting with Suu Kyi since Myanmar's civilian government took office in March.
“All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve all our problems.”
Kerry said he had discussed the Rohingya issue with Suu Kyi during their meeting, describing it as “very sensitive” and “divisive.”
“I know it arises strong passions here,” Kerry said. “What is critical to focus on is solving the problem...which is improving the situation on the ground, to promote development, promote respect for human rights and benefit all of those that live in Rakhine and throughout Myanmar.”
Last month hundreds of demonstrators protested in front of the US Embassy in Yangon in objection to the use of the term Rohingya in a statement issued by the embassy.
Speaking out for the group would carry a political cost for Suu Kyi, who took on the newly created role of state counsellor in April following the first-democratically elected government in some five decades.
The Rohingya are widely disliked in Myanmar, including by some within Suu Kyi’s party and its supporters. She risks losing support by taking up the cause of the beleaguered minority.
The Rohingya, most of whom live in apartheid-like conditions, are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to by many as Bengalis.
Ambassador Marciel has said he would keep using the term Rohingya because it is Washington’s policy to do so.
“What we want to do is avoid any terms that just add fuel to the fire,” Suu Kyi said in response to a question on her comments about the Rohingya. “I wasn’t talking about one particular term, I was talking about all the terms that are incendiary and which create greater divisions in the Rakhine and of course elsewhere too.”
Kerry was on a brief stop in the capital Naypyitaw before he joins President Barack Obama in Vietnam on Monday.
Kerry offered US support for Myanmar’s new government, saying Myanmar’s transition to a civilian government steered by Suu Kyi as a “remarkable statement” that furthers the global democratic cause.
Kerry told the Nobel laureate that her country’s evolution towards democracy after decades under the military was a “remarkable statement to people all over the world”.
But he said there were still “important hurdles” for the country to overcome in its transition to full democracy from military rule. He said he would discuss further political reforms in a meeting later with the commander in chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Last week, the Obama administration further eased economic and financial sanctions against Myanmar, removing some state-owned banks and enterprises from a blacklist. It also lifted some restrictions on trade to ease concerns of US firms about doing business in Myanmar.
More than 100 individuals and groups remain on Washington’s sanctions blacklist for Myanmar, making them radioactive to the international community and barring US banks or companies from making deals with them.
Kerry said the easing of the sanctions was tied to progress made in the democratic process and further easing would not occur under the current constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.
The meeting comes days after the US lifted a host of financial and trade embargoes in recognition of dramatic political changes that saw landmark elections sweep Suu Kyi and her party into office after decades of junta rule.
Suu Kyi, the foreign minister, also holds the newly-created position of state counsellor to enable her to steer the government despite a junta-scripted constitution that bars her from the presidency - a role now held by her longtime ally Htin Kyaw.
Myanmar president's office spokesman Zaw Htay said Kerry would only meet Suu Kyi, without giving details of the topics under discussion.
"He will meet the state counsellor, not the president," he told AFP, explaining that Htin Kyaw is yet to return from a summit in Russia.
According to the US State Department, Kerry's brief trip to Myanmar is to show "support for the new democratically-elected, civilian-led government" as well as to "further democratic and economic reforms".
US President Barack Obama has made two visits to the South-east Asian nation in recent years, seeking to widen engagement with the country as it embarked on a stunning transition towards democracy after half a century under a repressive military government.
Myanmar still faces huge challenges, including decrepit infrastructure, conflicts in resource-rich borderlands, religious tensions and the continued influence of the army and junta-era cronies, who still dominate the economy.
American investment in Myanmar remains relatively small compared to other nations, although some US companies including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, fast food restaurant KFC and carmakers Chevrolet and Ford have already established a sales presence.
Washington rolled back many of its sanctions to reward reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011, but retains scores of names on its blacklists as it seeks to push further changes and promote human rights.
The latest sanctions rollback further eases constraints on trade.
It opened up all Myanmar banks to American business, while also extending indefinitely permission made in December enabling firms to import through Myanmar's ports and airports - many of which are operated by cronies still on the blacklist.
The US has come under pressure from hardline Buddhists, who have held protests in recent days against the use of the term "Rohingya" to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine.
Buddhist nationalists label the group "Bengalis" and view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many can trace their roots in Myanmar back generations.
Kerry is due to continue on to Vietnam Sunday, where he will accompany Obama to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for a visit likely to focus on trade, security and human rights.