Obama pushes change on historic Myanmar visit
Obama pushes change on historic Myanmar visit
The trip, the first to Myanmar by a serving US president, came as the regime freed dozens more political prisoners to burnish its reform credentials and after the United States joined other Western powers in relaxing its sanctions.
After a red-carpet welcome for Air Force One, Obama met Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein and called on the former general to speed up the country’s march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule. “Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip,” Obama said afterwards in a major address at Yangon University during his whirlwind visit.
“This remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go,” he said. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must be strengthened.” Over the past few decades, “our two countries became strangers,” added Obama, who is on his foreign trip since winning re-election this month.
“But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country. About you. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage.” In once unthinkable scenes, Obama’s motorcade passed tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters — some chanting “America” — lining the streets of Yangon, the backdrop for several bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.
Obama removed his shoes during a brief visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies that is the spiritual center of Burmese Buddhism.
He later stood side by side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest, as the presidential limousine sat parked outside.
Crowds could be heard chanting “Obama, freedom” in the streets nearby. Suu Kyi for her part sounded a note of caution about the sweeping changes.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.” The White House hopes Obama’s visit to Myanmar will strengthen Thein Sein’s reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government.
The trip is seen as a political coup for Obama after his election victory and a major boost for Thein Sein, who has faced resistance from hard-liners within his regime to the rapid political changes.
Obama has stressed his visit is not an “endorsement” of the regime but “an acknowledgement” of the reform process.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
Obama used his speech to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was “no excuse for violence against innocent people.”
Two major outbreaks of violence since June between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
Most of those who fled their homes were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have faced decades of discrimination.
“For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” Obama said.
The setting for the speech was rich in symbolism. The university was the scene of past episodes of pro-democratic student unrest, including mass demonstrations in 1988 that ended in a bloody military crackdown.
Myanmar unveiled a series of new pledges on human rights ahead of Obama’s visit, vowing to review prisoner cases in line with “international standards” and open its jails to the Red Cross.
Activists said the regime also freed at least 44 political prisoners in an amnesty that coincided with his trip, but demanded more action.
“The government must release all political prisoners instead of using them as bargaining chips for visits like this (Obama’s),” Thailand-based activist Bo Kyi said, adding that more than 200 convicted dissidents remain in Myanmar’s jails. Obama flew on to Cambodia to attend a regional summit gathering the leaders of 18 countries.
During the two-day East Asia Summit, he is scheduled to hold talks with the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda.
Protests across Spain as sexual abuse gang released on bail
- All five, aged between 27 and 29, were convicted of sexual abuse in April but were acquitted of the more serious crime of sexual assault
- Thousands of people had already protested in Pamplona, Bilbao, Barcelona and other cities on Thursday after the court issued its ruling
MADRID: Protesters hit the streets across Spain for the second day running on Friday, after five men sentenced to nine years in prison for sexually abusing a young woman at Pamplona’s bull-running festival were released on bail.
The men, who called themselves “The Pack” in a WhatsApp messaging group, had been accused of raping a woman, then 18, on July 7, 2016, at the start of the week-long San Fermin festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors.
All five, aged between 27 and 29, were convicted of sexual abuse in April but were acquitted of the more serious crime of sexual assault — which includes rape — as the court did not consider the victim to have been subjected to intimidation or violence.
The men appealed their jail terms and a Pamplona court on Thursday ordered the five to be released on bail of 6,000 euros ($7,000) pending the outcome of the appeal.
Thousands of people of all ages demonstrated outside the justice ministry in central Madrid on Friday evening, shortly after the five men left jail after spending nearly two years in custody.
“I was stunned” by the court ruling, Aratz Beranoaguirre, a geologist, told AFP at the Madrid protest.
“Men have been educated with the idea that we can do anything, and with this ruling we have seen that you can rape and nothing happens.”
The crowd chanted: “They don’t believe us if they don’t kill us.”
Other protests were held in the southern city of Seville, the hometown of the five men, Pamplona — where the crowd held a large banner that read: “No is no. Justice!” outside of city hall — Granada, and elsewhere.
Thousands of people had already protested in Pamplona, Bilbao, Barcelona and other cities on Thursday after the court issued its ruling.
Women’s groups took to social media to call the protests with the slogan: “If the pack hits the streets, we will as well.”
Marches after the verdict in April brought tens of thousands of protesters out on to the streets.
“It is not fair that they are released with a sentence of nine years, and just a few days before San Fermin, they can even go there,” said Lucia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old protester in Madrid, referring to the upcoming running of the bulls festival which gets underway on July 6.
In its decision on Friday, the Navarre court said the five had been allowed out on bail because the social pressure on them made it “practically unthinkable” they would risk re-offending.
The men will remain under judicial monitoring. They have had their passports withdrawn and must report to court three times a week.
They are also banned from traveling to Madrid, where the victim lives.
One of the men is a policeman with the Guardia Civil — who is currently suspended — and another was once in the army. Several are “ultras” or hardcore fans of FC Sevilla.
The fact that the men videoed the attack on their smartphones and bragged about it within their WhatsApp group added to the outrage over the case.
The mayor of Pamplona, Joseba Asiron, said Friday his office would appeal the decision to release them, saying there was “a growing distance... between society itself and certain decisions taken by the courts.”
An online petition calling for the five to be kept behind bars had garnered 657,000 names by Friday night.
New socialist Justice Minister Dolores Delgado has not commented on the court decision, speaking only of a need to “change mentalities.”
The first step announced by the government of Pedro Sanchez, who took office earlier this month at the head of cabinet that includes 11 women, was to train magistrates in awareness about violence against women.
Noelia Garcia, 41, said she did not trust that the situation would change with a new government dominated by women.
“That is not enough. There needs to be a reform of the judicial system. Judges from another era need to be replaced,” she added at the Madrid protest.