YANGON, Myanmar – President Barack Obama gave a blunt assessment of the need for further reform in Myanmar's move toward democracy, weighing into sensitive controversies over the treatment of religious minorities and a prohibition keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.
Suu Kyi, released four years ago from more than two decades of confinement, is now a member of Myanmar's Parliament but is unable to run in next year's presidential election because of a constitutional rule barring anyone with strong allegiances to a foreign national from standing for the presidency. Suu Kyi's sons are British, as was her late husband.
"I don't understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are," Obama said, standing next to Suu Kyi in a press conference at the lakeside home where she was kept under house arrest. "That doesn't make much sense to me."
Obama has been pressing Myanmar's leaders to amend the Constitution, but has been careful to not directly endorse his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate as the country's next president. He also raised an issue that has led to criticism for the opposition icon — her reluctance to address the abuse of minority Rohingya Muslims who are deeply disdained by most people in Myanmar.
"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," Obama said. "Ultimately that is destabilizing to a democracy."
Suu Kyi opened the press conference by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar. She says although they may occasionally view things differently, the bond is very strong.
"We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship," she said.
Both Obama and Suu Kyi warned against complacency in the move toward democracy. Suu Kyi described the process as going through "a bumpy patch."
On her ability to run for president, she said it's flattering to have a constitutional provision written with her in mind but it's "not how constitution should be written." The 69-year-old said she and her supporters are working to change it and welcome Obama's support.
"The Constitution says all citizens should be treated as equals and this is discrimination on the grounds of my children," she said.