Myanmar welcomes world leaders amid reform worries

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – Myanmar welcomes its biggest gathering of global leaders Wednesday, November 12, since the start of reforms which have seen it shed pariah status despite deepening worries over the direction of its transition from decades of junta rule.

US President Barack Obama heads a stellar cast of dignitaries including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang due in the remote capital Naypyidaw for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits.

The two-day meet is the culmination of a year which has seen Myanmar seize the diplomatic limelight after having long been shunted to the sidelines by a combination of the insularity of its authoritarian former military rulers and international sanctions.

Fresh discussions on a festering regional maritime row in the South China Sea are likely to be aired, with Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam and the Philippines looking for US support in their claims to waters contested with regional powerhouse China.

But with Beijing reluctant to sign a binding, multilateral code of conduct covering the disputed and resource-rich waters, experts say there is unlikely to be a breakthrough in the standoff, which has seen tensions soar this year.

"Progress has been, and will continue to be, slow as China seeks to drag out the talks (on a code of conduct) for as long as possible. A final agreement could be several years away," said Ian Storey of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

On Wednesday the ASEAN bloc will also hold meetings with India, Japan and the United Nations before Obama lands in the evening fresh from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

Obama is set to meet Myanmar President Thein Sein and opposition leader – and fellow Nobel laureate – Aung San Suu Kyi during his two night stay in the country, as he looks to show his support for landmark elections slated for late 2015.

Under Thein Sein, a reformist former general, the country as been welcomed back into the international fold after enacting sweeping reforms including the release of most political prisoners and the promise of free and fair polls next year.

The reforms have seen most sanctions lifted, while foreign investment has poured into the almost virgin market of some 60 million people.

But Suu Kyi has sought to temper US "over-optimism" over Myanmar's reform process in comments just days before Obama's arrival.

Wrangles over the constitution, the cramping of media freedom as well as tinderbox issues such as burgeoning Buddhist extremism and anti-Muslim violence, have taken the sheen off its emergence from isolation after decades of iron-fisted army rule and raised fears its reforms are slipping.

Myanmar is the second leg of a week-long trip by Obama to push US priorities in the region.

But he arrives bloodied from a major election setback at home and assailed by global crises, from Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria to the conflict in Ukraine and the deadly spread of the Ebola virus.

The US has said talks on the rise of self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and Ebola will also be held in Naypyidaw. –