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Obama Hopes Myanmar Visit Will Give Fledgling Democracy A Boost


President Obama arrived today in Myanmar, the second stop on his week-long Asia tour. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is hosting a summit for its Southeast Asian neighbors. Two years ago Mr. Obama made history as the first American president to visit Burma, which is just emerging from long years of military dictatorship. Since that trip, Myanmar's transition to democracy has hit some speed bumps, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's last visit to Myanmar was almost entirely a good news story, a remarkable thaw in relations with a country that had long been in a political deep-freeze. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes considers the opening of Myanmar one of the administration's signature foreign policy achievements.

BEN RHODES: On the one hand, what we've seen in the last five years in Burma is transformational, an opening of a country that had been completely closed off for decades. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of political prisoners and the initiation, really, of a kind of politics in Burma that just didn't exist several years ago.

HORSLEY: But with national elections looming next year, Rhodes admits Myanmar's transition to democracy remains very much a work in progress and a messy work, at that.

RHODES: It's a country with enormous challenges and enormous needs. It has a lot to do.

HORSLEY: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred by the Constitution from running for office. The government, run by a former general, is battling various ethnic insurgencies and the most troubling of all, Rhodes says, is the ongoing persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people, which has driven tens of thousands to flee Myanmar over the last two years. Nevertheless, the White House argues it's better to address these problems directly with the government than to walk away from Myanmar. Asia expert Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution agrees, saying the process of reforming an autocratic government is never smooth.

KEN LIEBERTHAL: The politics of this are tough. The judgments are tough, but if you keep yourself out of the game completely, you almost guarantee your irrelevance.

HORSLEY: Earlier today the president tried to showcase his relevance in China during a state visit with Chinese president Xi Jinping. A crowd of jumping, flag-waving schoolchildren welcomed Obama to the Great Hall of the People, where he met with Xi. In both their private meeting and again when the two men were standing side by side in front of television cameras, Obama raised the issue of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. He dismissed Chinese suspicions that the U.S. is somehow an instigator of those protests, even as he spoke up for the demonstrators' rights.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rights that we believe are the birthright of all men and women, wherever they live, whether it is in New York or Paris or Hong Kong. We think history shows that nations that uphold these rights, including for ethnic and religious minorities, are ultimately more prosperous, more successful and more able to achieve the dreams of their people.

HORSLEY: When Xi's turn came to address the cameras, he was as unmoving as the Great Wall, declaring through an interpreter that the demonstrations in Hong Kong are illegal and that law and order must be maintained.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through translator) Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China's internal affairs and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion.

HORSLEY: The two presidents found more common ground in other areas including climate change.


OBAMA: On a whole host of issues at this summit, we've shown that U.S.-China cooperation can end up not only being good for the two countries, but good for the world as a whole.

HORSLEY: The U.S. and China also agreed on new steps to build trust between their militaries, in hopes of avoiding misunderstandings after a number of close encounters recently. Sometimes, Obama says, it's better to raise and address conflicts rather than try to tamp them down.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.