By Madalena Araujo, CNN
As President Barack Obama prepares to visit Myanmar next week for the East Asia and ASEAN Summits, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and labor said the Administration is not expecting a major leap forward any time soon.
“I don't think we're going to see breakthroughs in the short term. Burma was an opening to a breakthrough and it's one that we always knew would take years to move from its starting point to its finishing point. And we knew the success was not guaranteed and it is still not guaranteed,” Tom Malinowski told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
Myanmar showed some signs of openness and reform in recent years, most notably with the release of the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2010.
Yet fears that reform has stalled and the country’s disgraceful human rights record have put pressure on the international community to intervene.
“Burma is in the middle of a long and hard transition from an absolute dictatorship that violated the rights of every single person in that country to what we hope will be a democracy in the future. And they've done some of the easier things, releasing political prisoners and freeing up space for the media and for civil society activists,” Malinowski said.
President Obama has been asked by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to meet with members of the Rohingya community during next week’s summits. The Muslim minority has been consistently targeted by Buddhist nationalists.
“They [Myanmar’s leaders] are now facing, for the first time, the really hard structural challenges, including a challenge that was building up over these years and years of military rule of how to get the diverse populations of this country, including Muslims and Buddhists, to be able to live together.”
Malinowski said it was also up to world leaders to condemn those who are resisting reform.
“You see a lot of exploitation of those tensions to kind of try to divert the attention of the Burmese people away from the democracy struggle, to make the debate in Burma about ethnic and religious identity.”
“And that's something that leaders there have to stand up against, whether it's the president of the country, moral leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and it's something that President Obama is going to talk about to all of them.”
Malinowski also pointed out that while the West has eased some of the sanctions on Myanmar, it remains committed to implementing them wherever necessary.
“Just last week we added one of the most powerful politicians in Burma to our Treasury SBN, or our sanctions list. And that sent a very powerful message that even as we continue to stand with reformers in the country, whether it's Aung San Suu Kyi or those in the government who want to move the country forward, we are willing and able and have been isolating and marginalizing those who stand against this process.”
As to when Myanmar’s much-awaited breakthrough might come, it looks like it’s going to be quite a wait.
“I think if we stick with this through both engagement and through the kinds of tough actions that we continue to take, I think we've got a chance there for something that would be a breakthrough when we look back on it and are 20 years from now,” Malinowski said.
Click above to watch the full interview.