Obama to press Myanmar leaders on ethnic violence

WASHINGTON Fri Nov 16, 2012 6:23am IST

U.S. President Barack Obama attends his first news conference since he was re-elected, at the White House in Washington November 14, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama attends his first news conference since he was re-elected, at the White House in Washington November 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will press Myanmar leaders during an upcoming trip to restore calm to the western part of their country and bring instigators of ethnic violence there to justice, White House officials said on Thursday.

Obama leaves on Saturday for a trip to Asia that will include a historic stop in Myanmar, a former pariah state.

Some human rights workers object to the trip, saying the president is rewarding the country too soon for its still fragile democratic reforms.

Obama aides said the trip to the country, also known as Burma, was meant to lock in reforms and encourage more, while serving as an example to countries such as North Korea that the United States would engage with former foes if they reform.

But ethnic violence remains a top U.S. concern. Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser, said the Myanmar government had taken constructive steps in restoring calm to areas of violence, allowing humanitarian access, and pledging to bring perpetrators to justice.

"They need to follow through on each of these," Donilon said during a speech in Washington, noting that U.S. diplomats had been working closely with the government on how to proceed to ensure the safety of people in Rakhine State along Myanmar's western border.

"I expect the president will address this directly with the leadership of Burma as well when he's there," he said.

Muslim Rohingya have lived for generations in Rakhine State on the coastline of western Myanmar. But Buddhist Rakhines and other Burmese view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy. Last month, a week of sectarian violence claimed 89 lives, according to the official count.

White House officials noted the Rohingya had suffered from the ethnic violence.

"The president will be addressing the broad context of ethnic reconciliation and national reconciliation within Burma. Specifically, I think what we'd like to see is continued work to stabilize the situation, but also to bring down the temperature and reduce the tensions," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call.

Samantha Power, a top human rights adviser to Obama, said the text of the president's speech at a university in Myanmar on Monday was still being completed, but added the president would discuss the Rohingya in some form during his visit.

"Ultimately, the legal status of the Rohingya of course in this country as well as in the region needs to be resolved," she said. "And so that is something that we will engage them on I'm sure certainly privately and in some form publicly."

Despite its concerns about ethnic violence, the White House sees Myanmar as a success story of Obama's policy of reaching out to U.S. enemies. Donilon said North Korea could also reap the economic benefits of better U.S. relations if it gave up its nuclear ambitions and followed Myanmar's reform-minded lead.

"It's an important example for them to contemplate," he said. "The example of a country, totally isolated for many years, obviously, under extreme sanctions from the United States making a determination ... to go a different way."

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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