Speaking in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, President Barack Obama said the US is committed to help maintain peace and stability in Asia, but he warned that democracy would not succeed in Burma if oppression against the Muslim minority in the country continued.
“I believe that together we can make the Asia-Pacific more secure, and America has the strongest military in the world, but we don’t seek conflict, we seek to keep the peace. We want a future where disputes are resolved peacefully and where bigger nations don’t bully smaller nations, all nations are equal in the eyes of international law,” Obama told groups of Southeast Asian youngsters during a town hall-style meeting in the University of Malaya during his three-day visit to Kuala Lumpur.
In the one-and-a-half-hour talk, Obama also praised the political reforms underway in once-isolated Burma but said the danger of democratisation was that it could unleash religious and ethnic conflicts and that such developments could move Burma in a “bad direction”.
“And no country is going to succeed if a part of its population is put on the sidelines because they are discriminated against. Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunities, Myanmar [Burma] won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed,” he said.
Communal violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities has racked Burma over the past two years, particularly in northern Arakan State where vicious pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya community have led to the loss of perhaps hundreds, with thousands of house destroyed, and more than 100,000 people now living in internally displaced person (IDP) shelters.
Last month, local Buddhist mobs in Sittwe attacked international aid agencies they accuse of siding with the Rohingya IDPs over Buddhist Arakanese victims, a charge the relief groups vehemently deny. INGOs were subsequently forced to close their offices and suspend relief programmes while evacuating staff.
A spokesperson from the US Embassy in Rangoon told DVB on Monday that it is calling on the Burmese government to reinstate all UN agencies and International NGO humanitarian operations in Arakan State.
“We continue to have serious concerns about the continuing lack of access by humanitarian aid agencies and personnel to vulnerable communities in Rakhine [Arakan] State. This has left communities in an extremely precarious situation, particularly with respect to access to water, sanitation, food and healthcare. We urge the Burmese government to work closely with the UN and international NGOs to facilitate their return to Rakhine [Arakan] State and to support the immediate resumption of their operations, including by assuring their security,” he said.
In Malaysia, Obama’s talk was briefly disrupted by a peaceful protest with audiences holding up placards denouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade deal that is a central part of the Obama administration’s effort at counterbalancing Chinese influence in the region.
Obama said that domestic opposition to trade deals wasn’t surprising and that the United States was willing to be flexible on particularly sensitive areas.
“The trade agreement that we’re trying to create, the TPP, part of what we are trying to do is to create higher standards for labour protection, for environmental protection, more consistent protection of intellectual properties because increasingly that’s the next phase of wealth. All those things require more transparency and more accountability and more rule of law,” Obama said.
The deal would connect a dozen Asia-Pacific economies by eliminating trade barriers and harmonising regulations in a pact covering two-fifths of the world economy and a-third of all global trade.
However the TPP has face mass criticism from activist groups who feel the pact is not transparent and would give more power to big corporations, lead to job losses, and harm the environment.
Obama will depart Malaysia for the Philippines on Monday for the last leg of his Southeast Asian tour that also took him to Japan and South Korea.