Peace Corps to open in Burma

The massive Sule Pagoda in the center of downtown Yangon, Myanmar, has served as the focal point of political movements
The massive Sule Pagoda in the center of downtown Yangon, Myanmar, has served as the focal point of political movements MCT

The Peace Corps will open its first-ever program in Burma to help the budding Asian democracy, the White House said Thursday during President Barack Obama’s second visit to the country. The first volunteers will arrive in the country in 2015 and will work with Burmese groups.

In a statement, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said there was “no better way” for the U.S. to show support for Burma’s fledgling democracy “than through people-to-people connections at the grassroots level.”

The government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, last year formally requested the Peace Corps’ assistance, and Rhodes said the first volunteers will arrive in late 2015 and will undergo three months of cross-cultural, language, and technical training before moving to volunteer sites for two years.

At their sites, Rhodes said, the volunteers will “partner with people to strengthen local capacity, facilitate cultural exchanges at the grassroots level, and build friendships that will last a lifetime and further strengthen the ties between our two countries.”

Burma’s transition has been rocky, with democratic reforms stalling since Obama’s first visit in 2012. 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.

Obama will meet Friday with Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and Regional Director Keri Lowry to mark the opening of the program in Burma -- the 141st country with a Peace Corps presence.

He told leaders on Thursday that he was “encouraged” with what he’s seen. He touted what he said was leadership and commitment that could result in a “completely new day for Myanmar.

He cited release of political prisoners, the end of children getting recruited into the army and progress on a national ceasefire. But Obama emphasized that "we recognize the process is incomplete," citing violence against Muslims and a failure to change the constitution before next years elections.

"We recognize change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line but I'm optimistic,” Obama said. “I committed to President Sein that all those who sincerely pursue reform always have a strong ally in the United States of America."