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In Myanmar, Obama blunt in pressing for more democratic reform

YANGON, Myanmar -- President 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 Parliament in Myanmar, which used to be known as Burma, 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," Mr. Obama said, standing next to Suu Kyi in a news conference at the lakeside home where she was kept under house arrest. "That doesn't make much sense to me."

Mr. 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," Mr. Obama said. "Ultimately, that is destabilizing to a democracy."

Suu Kyi opened the news conference by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar. She said 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

On another matter, Mr. Obama sidestepped questions about the status of a New York Times reporter who U.S. prosecutors want to testify in a leak investigation -- even as he is urging Myanmar and China to adopt greater press freedoms.

Mr. Obama said he has been "pretty blunt and pretty frank" with leaders in China and Myanmar that societies that repress journalists ultimately repress their people, as well.

He said he could not comment specifically on the case of former CIA operative Jeffrey Sterling, who prosecutors allege disclosed classified information about Iran operations to journalist James Risen. They have said Risen's testimony is integral to their case.

Mr. Obama said the U.S. protects press freedoms. He reiterated remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder that no journalists will go to jail for doing their job.

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