NAYPYIDAW, Burma — Before President Obama left for Asia this week, his top advisers met privately in Washington with human rights activists to discuss concerns over crackdowns in Burma and Hong Kong, hoping to head off criticism of the president’s visit.
Perhaps someone should have talked to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Last week, the Burmese democratic icon spoke bluntly about the sluggish pace of reforms in the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation and said the United States had been “overly optimistic” about human rights progress there.
“What significant reforms have been taken within the last 24 months?” she said at a news conference.
As Obama arrived in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, on Wednesday for a three-day visit, he faced broader questions about his administration’s efforts to expand U.S. engagement in the Asia-
Specifically, human rights advocates, aid workers and some in Congress say they are concerned that the U.S. drive for strategic and economic partnerships in the region has taken priority over demands for governments to respect free speech and safeguard religious and ethnic minorities.
The Obama administration has held up Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the crowning diplomatic achievement of its Asia strategy.
Three years ago, the United States offered political and economic support after President Thein Sein showed signs of pushing for an end to a half-century of oppressive military rule. Administration officials think that Burma can serve as an example of the United States’ commitment to budding democracies — and a clear alternative to China’s influence in the region.
But two years after Obama made a historic visit to the country — where he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon — a renewed government crackdown on journalists and political dissidents has sparked international condemnation. And an ongoing campaign of violence against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine continues unchecked.
By some counts, more than 100,000 Rohingya have fled the predominantly Buddhist nation over the past two years. Some activists have compared the situation in Rakhine to a concentration camp.
In a written interview with the Burma news outlet Irrawaddy, Obama acknowledged some of the setbacks, including the murder of a journalist and the mistreatment of the Rohingya.
“One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected,” Obama said.
But the United States must strike a delicate balance chastising Sein on human rights questions, while continuing to support his civilian government against an entrenched military junta.
Obama’s visit this week coincides with the East Asian and ASEAN summits in Naypyidaw, a pair of regional gatherings that the administration has elevated to a presidential-level priority in a bid to strengthen ties to fast-developing Southeast Asian nations.
After two nights in Naypyidaw, where Obama is expected to meet with Sein, he will fly to the old capital of Rangoon, where he will hold a news conference with Suu Kyi, participate in a civil society roundtable and answer questions at a town-hall-style event at Yangon University.
White House officials said Obama has been mindful to highlight the value and importance of human rights on each of his trips to Asia. This past spring, Obama became the first U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 to visit Malaysia, where he celebrated America’s closer ties with the Muslim-majority nation.
Advocates had called on the White House to reconcile Malaysia’s rapid modernization with the repression of political dissent and freedom of expression. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government had used the nation’s anti-sodomy and sedition laws to sideline political opponents.
During his visit to Beijing this week, Obama met with new Indonesia President Joko Widodo and praised his nation for playing “an extraordinary role in promoting pluralism and respect for religious diversity” and rooting out extremism. The Obama administration also has pushed hard to get the Chinese government to reverse its ban on foreign journalists in retribution for stories exposing Communist Party corruption.
Yet at times the president has appeared constrained by competing priorities.
Obama opened his Asia visit in Beijing hoping to shore up his strained relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and forge new agreements on climate change, trade and security. On Monday, a day before Obama opened a series of formal meetings with Xi, an American reporter asked him whether he agreed with Xi’s support for Hong Kong’s crackdowns on the pro-democracy demonstrations in the former British colony.
Obama replied that China is still developing its political and economic systems and the United States does not “expect China to follow an American model in every instance.”
He added: “Obviously, the situation between China and Hong Kong is historically complicated and is in the process of transition.”
On Wednesday, at a joint news conference, Obama more forcefully pushed Xi to confront China’s record on human rights, but he also struck notes of conciliation, including emphasizing that the United States does not support independence for Tibet.
Members of Congress have urged the administration to speak more forcefully.
“America’s credibility and reputation around the world on human rights and religious freedom is at an all-time low. You haven’t seen the administration speak out very aggressively,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who helped lead efforts to punish China with economic measures in the wake of the government’s violent response to the 1989 Tiananmen uprising.
The White House views Burma’s democratic elections next fall as a key marker, although Suu Kyi remains constitutionally barred from running for the presidency.
As for the Rohingya, U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said most Burmese do not support U.S.-backed proposals to incorporate the Muslim minority into society.
“That puts us at odds with traditional allies within the country,” the ambassador said, “and simply means we need to be much more careful and smart about how we engage on this without violating our sacred principles and values.”
Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.