YANGON — Myo Zin Khaing was applauding as U.S. President Barack Obama met Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside mansion. But the 54 year old was not watching the two Nobel peace laureates speaking on Suu Kyi’s lawn. He was cheering 200 students marching to Yangon City Hall to protest a new education law they say gives the government too much control over universities.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a student leader, turned down an invitation to meet Barack Obama so she could take part in the protest on Nov. 14. “The government is trying to maintain a centralized education system like during military rule,” the 26-year-old former political prisoner told Nikkei Asian Review.
For his part, Myo Zin Khaing is one of dozens of residents from eastern Yangon who have camped out near City Hall since March, protesting that they were evicted unfairly from their homes. “We just want to get our land back; I hope Daw Suu and President Obama and President U Thein Sein hear this message,” Myo Zin Khaing said, using local honorific titles for Suu Kyi and the Burmese president.
The military-backed government under Thein Sein ended half a century of dictatorship in 2011, restoring press freedom, releasing most political prisoners, and changing laws to try attract more foreign investment. In response, the U.S. eased sanctions imposed during military rule.
Neither Myo Zin Khaing nor Phyoe Phyoe Aung would have been allowed to protest during military rule. Their ability to do so now shows how the country has changed. But many Myanmar people feel excluded from the reforms, which are stalling, according to a statement released by Suu Kyi just before Obama’s arrival.
Obama’s visit — for the annual East Asia Summit — was his second since 2012. It came at a pivotal time, as Myanmar prepares for national elections in a year’s time that could result in defeat for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, run by former military officers.
But Suu Kyi will be denied a shot at leading the country even if her National League for Democracy wins the election. According to Article 59f of Myanmar’s constitution, she is barred from holding the presidency because she was married to a foreigner, whose U.K. citizenship her sons still hold.
Suu Kyi wants the U.S. to press Myanmar to amend the constitution, which also allocates 25% of parliamentary seats to the army, creating a formidable blocking mechanism against further reform. At least 75% of MPs must vote in favor of any constitutional change.
“Our people are firmly behind us in our desire to change this clause [59f], and if President Obama said anything about a necessity to change a clause like that, they would love him very much for it,” Suu Kyi said during the president’s visit. A petition seeking constitutional change was signed by 5 million of Myanmar’s 50 million people.
However, the extent of U.S. backing for the repeal of the clause is unclear. Standing next to Suu Kyi on Nov. 14, Obama said that barring the NLD leader “doesn’t make much sense.” But he did not raise the issue when speaking later at Yangon University. Nor did Suu Kyi’s eligibility come up during an hour-long question and answer session with students after the speech.
Opinions differ about the importance of the clause. Lamin Oo, a Myanmar filmmaker whose name was mentioned by Obama during his speech, said afterwards that “if that issue was an important one for [young people] it would have come up in questions.”
However, Kyaw Thu, a former actor turned philanthropist, said the constitution should be changed to allow Suu Kyi stand. “Obama should push for this with Thein Sein,” Kyaw Thu said.
While the U.S. is pushing Myanmar to become more democratic, it is being selective in the issues it raises with the Myanmar government, amid fierce competition from China and Japan for diplomatic sway and business deals.
Courting Myanmar is a key element in Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, intended to boost U.S. economic and security influence in the region, and counter China’s rise. But the U.S. is only the 13th biggest source of investment into the Southeast Asian country, according to Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration.
Investment from China has slackened since 2011, when Myanmar suspended construction of a massive Chinese-backed dam and power plant in the north of the country. But it remains higher than from any other country.
Even as Obama bantered with university students on Nov. 14, Myanmar and China announced nearly $8 billion of infrastructure and agriculture deals. That sum alone exceeds the combined total of U.S. public and private investment in Myanmar, and hints at the limits of U.S. influence.
Obama encouraged Myanmar on another key political issue — hopes of bringing an end to a series of civil wars that have run since the late 1940s. Ahead of the elections, the government is negotiating a “nationwide ceasefire” with more than a dozen border based ethnic minority militias. Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center, a government-linked organization that facilitates peace talks, said the next round of discussions would take place in the week after Obama’s visit.
“We are about 90% there,” Hla Maung Shwe told Nikkei Asian Review, discussing the possibility of a deal. “We are down to the last remaining 10%.”
Some analysts believe the government is putting peace negotiations before reforms. “The current administration is prioritizing the ceasefire discussions and the establishment of a nascent political dialogue as the key platform for performance. Hence, the feeling that other commitments for reform are stalling,” said Moe Thuzar, a Myanmar academic based at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
However, the government did find time in the weeks before Obama’s visit to amend policies toward the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in western Rakhine state that is not recognized by the government and whose plight has gained international attention.
According to a leaked government plan, some Rohingya will be eligible for a form of citizenship if they accept the government’s designation of them as “Bengali,” implying that they do not belong in Myanmar.
Since 2012, around 140,000 Rohingya have been living in refugee camps, while around 100,000 have risked storms and human traffickers in the hope of finding work in relatively prosperous and largely Muslim Malaysia. “We don’t have freedom of movement or any way to have a livelihood here,” said Myo Win, a Rohingya, speaking by telephone from a camp in Rakhine state.
During his visit, Obama was more forthright about the Rohingya than he was about Suu Kyi’s presidential ambitions. But although the U.S. government has called for Myanmar to ease restrictions on Rohingya and allow them official use of their preferred designation, Suu Kyi has not followed suit. The White House and The Lady, as Suu Kyi is called, do not see eye to eye on all issues.
Assessing Suu Kyi’s motives, Matthew Walton, the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Burmese Studies at Oxford University, said: “There’s very little support for even a basic humane policy towards the Rohingya in Myanmar, so there’s little political gain for a domestic politician to speak out about this.”
With the U.S. and Suu Kyi taking different views on constitutional reform and the plight of the Rohingya — the two most important political issues facing Myanmar — it looks likely that Obama’s visit will not yield much assistance for the Myanmar opposition leader.
In turn, her NLD seems resigned to finding an alternative presidential candidate. There are rumors that the party may back parliamentary speaker and former junta number three Shwe Mann, who recently took the opposition party’s side over divisive proposals to change Myanmar’s voting system.
Asked if the NLD would back Shwe Mann, Han Tha Myint, a member of the party’s executive committee, was non-committal. “If we look into the 50 million people of this country, we can find a suitable president,” he told NAR.