It isn’t unusual for Barack Obama to hold a news conference with a president or prime minister when he visits another country.
But in Myanmar this week, Obama skipped a news conference with President Thein Sein. Instead on Friday, he answered reporters’ questions for about 45 minutes alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party.
The two spoke on the back patio of Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon where she was held under house arrest for nearly two decades The two were affectionate with each other and shared at least one long embrace. “We continue to look to you for inspiration,” he said to her.
Obama said Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has come a long way, but still has more work to do in the areas of democracy, ethnic fights and human rights violations.
“We shouldn’t deny that Burma today is not the same as Burma five years ago,” Obama said. “But the process is still incomplete.”
A nation of 50 million people, Myanmar was closed off from the world for decades. In 2012, Obama became the first U.S. president ever to set foot in the Southeast nation that had been isolated under military rule.
“Our reform process is going through a bumpy patch,” Suu Kyi acknowledged.
Suu Kyi, released four years ago from more than two decades of confinement, is the daughter of the nation’s indepence leader, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a member of Myanmar's Parliament. She is unable to run in next year's presidential election because her sons are British citizens, as was her late husband.
She and others are pushing for a change in the Constitution, which she now calls “unfair, unjust and undemocratic.” “It's about standing for what you believe in,” she said.
Obama has pressed Myanmar's leaders to amend the Constitution as well, though he’s careful not to assume Suu Kyi would be elected president.
“I don't understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said. “That doesn't make much sense to me.”
Obama spent two days in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, where he met with Sein in and participated in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. He said Friday he told Sein that he will be judged by whether next year's election is held on time and whether the constitutional amendment process reflects inclusion.
“We expect elections to take place on time… it's time for the voices for the people of Burma to be heard,” he said.
Human rights groups say the civilian government, still heavily influenced by the military, is engaged in a systematic effort to repress and dislocate the Rohingya people, Muslims long persecuted by the nation’s Buddhist majority.
“We'll remain fully committed to the principle of non violence,” Suu Kyi said when asked about the situation.
“Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority I think does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be,” Obama said. “Ultimately that is destabilizing to a democracy.”
Suu Kyi and Obama both said in their opening statements that reports of tension between the U.S. and Myanmar are false.
“We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” she said.
“If we continue to see progress on reform the ties between are two countries will grow stronger,” Obama said.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters that the unusual news conference took place because Suu Ky is “a unique figure, and she’s certainly a figure who is going to be very important to the future of this country.”