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In Myanmar, Obama Holds News Conference With Opposition Leader


Typically, when the president visits another country, he holds a joint press conference with his counterpart. But in Myanmar, also known as Burma, President Obama pointedly did not do that. Instead, he met reporters together with the country's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith monitored that press conference stateside and joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: The president was obviously making a point.

KEITH: Absolutely, he was. Myanmar's current president is an ex-general. And as President Obama put it, Myanmar today is not the same as it was five years ago. But the process is still incomplete. Aung San Suu Kyi spent some 15 years under house arrest at the very home where she and President Obama held this press conference. And as they stood there, they outlined all of the issues that still need work - rule of law, fair and free elections, human rights, press freedom and also treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

MONTAGNE: Well, one such minority are the Rohingya people, who have been persecuted for decades there. Did President Obama address their plight?

KEITH: Yes, and the Associated Press reports that Obama spoke with the Myanmar's president directly about the Rohingya people and pointedly said their name. The government says that the Rohingya ethnicity doesn't exist and says they're illegally in the country. They're Muslims, and they're being oppressed by the country's majority, Buddhist. And Obama also brought them up in the press conference.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

KEITH: There had been a social media campaign in the U.S. with the hash tag, #JustSayTheirName. And President Obama ultimately didn't just say their name, he also pressed for their conditions to improve.

MONTAGNE: Well, Aung San Suu Kyi can't run for president under the constitution there in Myanmar. It prevents anyone from running if they have close ties to a citizen of another country, and that describes her late husband and children, who are British citizens.

KEITH: Yeah, and it seems like that provision was written just for her. And President Obama was also direct about that. He said, quote, "there are certain provisions in the Burmese constitution that objectively don't make much sense." He says it is up to the Burmese people to write their own constitution. But then, again he said that part doesn't make much sense.

MONTAGNE: And Tamara, another thing - often at these foreign press conferences, reporters use the opportunity to ask about domestic issues. I'm guessing this particular press conference wasn't that different.

KEITH: Correct. He was asked about immigration reform. And he said, again, he plans to sign an executive action by the end of this year. He was also asked about the Keystone XL pipeline. The House is voting today on a bill to allow that project to proceed. And the Senate will take it up next week. President Obama said his position remains the same. And he questioned some of the arguments that are being made in favor of it.


OBAMA: Understand what this project is. It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. It doesn't have an impact on U.S. gas prices.

KEITH: He didn't specifically say he would veto the bill, but he certainly didn't endorse it.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks very much.

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

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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