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Obama In Myanmar For Summit With Southeast Asian Leaders


This is NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For decades, Myanmar vied with North Korea as the most sealed-off and secretive nation in the world.


So when the country opened up four years ago, the world embraced its move towards democracy.

MONTAGNE: Which is one reason President Obama is there today. He's attending a key economic summit of Southeast Asian leaders - the first time that the group ASEAN is meeting in Myanmar.

GREENE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, a frequent visitor to Myanmar, joins us now from Beijing. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: This is a country you are very familiar with, we should say. You've been there. You have followed its progress since the end of military rule three years ago. Just remind us of the story of Myanmar if you can. And we should say, this is a country also known to many people as Burma.

KUHN: Yes, David. It's a former British colony, and for about a half a century, from 1962 to 2011, it was under the rule of a military junta. Then in 2011, a new nominally civilian government - in other words, led by a bunch of ex-generals - took over. And they started freeing political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party swept 2012 by-elections, and she's now a member of parliament. The government also began peace talks with ethnic insurgents who had been fighting the government for decades. There was a feeling there of initial euphoria and optimism, and I think this colored a lot of the initial media reports about Myanmar. I can tell you that in the past year and a half, that initial euphoria has definitely cooled.

GREENE: Well, that's some of the emotional response that you're talking about. Is there a way to tell concretely how far this country has actually moved away from military rule?

KUHN: Well, the military remains very much in the driver's seat politically. The constitution guarantees them 25 percent of the seats in parliament. A lot of the rest are taken up by the ruling party, which is ex-military. And the opposition are a very small minority. The government now seems unwilling to change the constitution, which now bars Suu Kyi from running for president. While the government has released many political prisoners, they have arrested and jailed a lot of new ones.

In large parts of the country, rural areas, not much has changed, and Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Now, one of the examples that critics such as Suu Kyi have raised is that she warned the U.S. not to lift its ban on U.S. companies investing in Myanmar's military-dominated oil and gas sector. The U.S. decided not to listen to her. They gave companies the green light. And now Aung San Suu Kyi and others say the U.S. has a lot less leverage against the government.

GREENE: Well, and critics of the government as well, Anthony, have pointed out that there's a Muslim minority, the Rohingya minority, in the country. And there have just been some stunning images of how that minority has been treated recently.

KUHN: Yes, well, it's seen outside Myanmar as really a humanitarian crisis. The Rohingya people inhabit both sides of the border - Myanmar on one side and Bangladesh on the other. And neither state recognizes them as citizens. Now, in 2012, violence there broke out between Buddhists and Muslims. More than 200 people were killed, and the violence later spread to Myanmar's heartland.

Now many of the Rohingya are confined to camps. They're not allowed to travel. They don't have access to adequate medical care and education. Many of them have fled overseas as refugees. Now, recently, the Myanmar government has suggested a plan to make Rohingya either prove they've been in the country for 60 years and can become citizens or face deportation. And today, the U.S. said Myanmar should scrap that plan and come up with a better one.

GREENE: Let me ask you about one other way to look at progress in a country like this. In a minute, we're going to talk about the alleged murder by the military of a Myanmar journalist. What's the situation with press freedom in the country right now?

KUHN: Well, under military rule, David, you could not print a word if it had not been approved in advance by censors in Yangon. Only last year, the government lifted a half-century-old ban on running private daily newspapers, and minorities were not allowed to publish the news in their own ethnic languages.

Now things have changed. Journalists now have to worry about being sued for libel by officials if they criticize them. And about a dozen journalists have been jailed for their reporting in the past year. Things can be even worse if reporters offend the army. There's an activist-turned-journalist named Aung Kyaw Naing, and he recently died in a military custody. And while the government denies it, Aung Kyaw Naing's supporters say that he was tortured and executed by the military.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking about Myanmar with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's in Beijing. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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