Yangon (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama urged Myanmar Friday to hold “free, fair and inclusive” elections as he threw his weight behind a bid by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to change a constitution that bars her from the presidency.
Obama held talks with fellow Nobel laureate Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, after arriving from the capital Naypyidaw where he discussed the nation’s troubled reform process with President Thein Sein.
Speaking at a joint press conference he warned Myanmar’s reforms since shedding outright military rule in 2011 were by “no means complete or irreversible” and called for “free, fair and inclusive” elections in the nation, where Suu Kyi and her party are set to contest crucial polls next year.
Suu Kyi, who has publicly stated her desire to be president, is barred from the top office by a constitutional clause ruling out anyone with foreign spouse or children from the presidency.
Her late husband and two sons are British and the democracy champion is seeking an amendment.
Using strong language, Obama took up the issue telling reporters that “the amendment process needs to reflect inclusion rather than exclusion.”
“I don’t understand the provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who his (someone’s) children are.”
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party is expected to sweep polls in late 2015, branded the contentious clause as “unfair, unjust and undemocratic” adding “it is not right to discriminate against one particular citizen”.
The issue is currently being debated in parliament, where 25 percent of the seats are ring-fenced for the military.
“The majority of our people understand that this constitution cannot stand as it is,” if democracy is to be achieved, the democracy figurehead added.
The pair spoke in the garden of Suu Kyi’s villa in a reprise of their landmark meeting in 2012, which saw the U.S. leader throw his political might behind Myanmar’s transition from junta rule.
After talks with his counterpart Thein Sein late Thursday Obama expressed cautious optimism for the once-cloistered nation that balanced out earlier warnings on the risks of “backsliding” on the transition.
“We recognize change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line but I’m optimistic,” Obama said.
During his two-night trip to Myanmar the U.S. leader has also raised alarm over the direction of reforms, however, citing the cramping of freedom of expression, ongoing conflicts and the treatment of Myanmar’s minority groups — especially the Muslim Rohingya.
Obama was whisked from Yangon airport to tour the British colonial-era secretariat building in the city’s downtown where Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero General Aung San, was gunned down by political rivals in 1947.
Their talks at Suu Kyi’s lakeside family home came almost four years to the day after she was released from years of house arrest.
He later moved to a university compound for a town hall style question-and-answer session where the serious political discussion was punctuated by peels of laughter as a relaxed Obama took off his jacket and bantered with the mainly young audience.
Several among the crowd briefly held up banners reading “reform is fake”, prompting a riposte from the U.S. leader who said “Oh we have some signs… that’s why we are here, to talk”.
On his last visit, Obama received a fanfare welcome from thrilled locals a year after Thein Sein began to open up the country.
Most political prisoners have been released and by-elections have seen Suu Kyi become a lawmaker, while foreign investors have arrived in lockstep with the lifting of most sanctions.
But the atmosphere has slowly soured, with many observers saying reforms have stalled.
This time there was little of the streetside cheering for Obama.
Even Sui Kyi’s star power earned as the torch-bearer of democracy during the dark junta years having waned in the eyes of some as she has edged away from her role as a resistance icon to become a player in the nation’s fractious politics.
For his part, Obama has been battered domestically with poor approval numbers compounded by a thumping defeat for his Democrats in last week’s mid-term elections.
Air Force One departed at dusk, taking the U.S. leader and his entourage to a final stop on a three-leg tour in Brisbane, Australia, for talks with G20 leaders, where global growth and security issues are likely to dominate.
AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan