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Myanmar progress begins to slip

– President Barack Obama recently singled out Myanmar as a U.S. foreign policy victory – a country that had emerged from decades of military rule and turned toward the West, thanks in part to American diplomacy.

If Myanmar succeeds, the president told West Point cadets recently, “we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.” But two years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy.

The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. Revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

The situation is most dire in Myanmar’s western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. Tomas Ojea Quintana, a former United Nations special reporter for human rights, said in April that there is an “element of genocide” in the Rohingyas’ plight.

The setbacks have raised the stakes for Obama’s scheduled November visit to a regional conference in Myanmar, also known as Burma, during which the administration had hoped to showcase the country’s progress as part of its strategic “rebalance” toward Asia. Now even some of Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill have begun to question whether the administration has moved too quickly to embrace Myanmar’s leadership.

“We have a moral obligation despite the political benefits” of improving ties, said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., who has introduced a bill to link additional U.S. aid to human rights reforms. “We’re for having a relationship with Burma, but only if they respect human rights and the rule of law.”

U.S. officials said Obama will make clear to President Thein Sein that his government must address the human rights issues and allow a truly democratic election in 2015 if it expects to maintain good relations with the United States.

“As far as Burma’s come in the last three years, they’re getting to the really hard stuff now,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

“That’s why there are some acute problems and legitimate fears about prospects for full success.”