NAYPYIDAW, Burma —President Obama on Thursday reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to assisting Burma through its fitful transition toward democracy, hoping his second visit to the country in two years will add renewed urgency to the effort.
“We recognize change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line, but I’m optimistic,” Obama said after meeting with President Thein Sein for an hour at the opulent presidential palace here in the capital city.
“The democratic process in Myanmar is real,” he added, using the country name preferred by Thein Sein’s administration and other political leaders here. U.S. government policy is to use Burma, but White House aides said the president is comfortable with either term in conversations.
Obama cautioned, however, that the progress has been slow and urged the Burmese leadership to take more direct action to protect persecuted Muslim minorities in the mostly Buddhist country. The president also looked ahead to next year’s elections, which the Obama administration sees as a key marker, and said the civilian government must alter the constitution to allow for more participation and openness.
“I committed to President Sein that all those who sincerely pursue reform always have a strong ally in the United States,” Obama said.
Thein Sein called the talks “candid” and said some of the more difficult problems his nation faces need more time to be addressed.
“We’re in the process of addressing these concerns,” he said.
Obama’s meeting with Thein Sein was part of a careful balancing act as he seeks to apply pressure on the civilian government and on the military leaders, who still exert widespread influence, while also emphasizing that the United States remains willing to assist in the nation’s development.
To make the latter point, the White House announced Thursday that the United States will open a Peace Corps bureau in the country in late 2015.
Obama also met with a dozen Burmese lawmakers after he wrapped up a series of meetings with Southeast Asian leaders at a pair of regional summits. The presidential motorcade left the summit conference center and turned down a narrow side street, pulling up at a nondescript, three-story office building.
He and several senior aides walked up two flights of dusty, wooden stairs and took their places around a wobbly, horseshoe-shaped table. Then the leader of the free world spent an hour talking with a dozen members of parliament with less influence than a freshman House member from a tiny district back in the United States.
Such are the stakes of Burma’s democracy project for the Obama administration, which placed a big bet two years ago that the long-isolated nation could shake off 50 years of military rule.
“The work is not yet done,” Obama said after meeting with the legislators.
The gathering included Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and pro-democracy icon who has sounded sharp criticism about the pace of reform in recent weeks. She did not address reporters who were allowed in for about 10 minutes.
“The goal of the United States here is to be a strong partner in the process,” the president said. “We’ll praise what works, and there are times when we’ll offer constructive criticism about a lack of progress in certain areas or where progress has stalled. But our consistent aim and goal will be to see that this transition is completed.”
Two years ago, Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Rangoon for an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa, where she had spent 15 years under house arrest.
He gave a speech at Yangon University in which he cautioned against complacency on the path of reform, saying the “flickers of progress . . . must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
But there have been new crackdowns on political dissent, and reporters have been thrown in jail. Violence has increased against a Muslim minority in Burma. And Suu Kyi remains banned from running for president in next year’s elections.