November 18, 2012

Obama defends timing of first Myanmar visit

He's encouraging the country's turnaround to democracy, not rewarding it, the president says.

By JULIE PACE The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Barack Obama, Yingluck Shinawatra
click image to enlarge

President Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra acknowledge each other at a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday.

The Associated Press


YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar's leader has ordered a new prisoner amnesty ahead of a historic visit to the country by President Obama on Monday.

State television said Sunday that President Thein Sein had ordered 66 detainees released Monday, but it was not clear whether any political prisoners would be among them.

The presidential amnesty was the second announced in a week.

On Thursday, Thein Sein announced an amnesty for 452 prisoners, but the move did not include prisoners of conscience and prompted activists to step up calls for the government to release those believed to remain behind bars.

Myanmar's government has long insisted that all prisoners are criminals and does not acknowledge the existence of political detainees. However, the new government, praised for its moves toward democracy, has released hundreds of people this year who were jailed under the former military junta.

A separate press release, issued Sunday, said the government would "initiate a process between the Ministry of Home Affairs and interested parties to devise a transparent mechanism to review remaining prisoner cases of concern by the end of December 2012."

-- The Associated Press

Obama will meet separately in Myanmar with Prime Minister Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country's recent reforms. The president will also meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung Sun Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.

The president, as he seeks to assuage critics, has touted Suu Kyi's support of his outreach efforts, saying Sunday that she was "very encouraging" of his trip.

The White House says Obama will express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people -- the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya -- have been displaced.

The U.N. has called the Rohingya -- who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar -- among the world's most persecuted people.

The White House says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.

The president will cap his trip to Myanmar with a speech at Rangoon University, the center of the country's struggle for independence against Britain and the launching point for many pro-democracy protests. The former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.

Obama began his Asian tour on a steamy day in Bangkok with a visit to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery. In stocking feet, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked around a golden statue of Buddha. The complex is a sprawling display of buildings with colorful spires, gardens and waterfalls.

Obama then paid a courtesy call to the ailing, U.S.-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters. The 84-year-old king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and studied in Europe.


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