WASHINGTON (AP) -- Few imagined Myanmar would embrace democracy when the U.S. began its historic engagement with the military regime. The country's rapid changes were lauded by visiting Western leaders, and the nation's president was hailed as a hero. But spasms of spreading, communal violence show the reform path is bumpier than expected and have taken the sheen off a foreign policy success of the Obama administration's first term.
While Washington says the country's overall direction is still positive, some experts worry Myanmar risks backsliding toward military rule that ended two years ago.
In the past two weeks, violence between Buddhists and Muslims has left dozens dead. Thousands of refugees of an earlier spate of sectarian bloodletting are fleeing on rickety boats. And in a key concern to U.S. policymakers, the country's murky military ties with North Korea continue.
Washington has been at the forefront of international efforts to encourage the country also known as Burma to open up to the world and ease controls on its 60 million people. Thursday marks the anniversary of the historic U.S. announcement that it was normalizing diplomatic relations -- the first in a series of diplomatic rewards in response to reforms. That culminated in the suspension of economic sanctions and in November, the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president.
The benefits of reforms have been clear. President Thein Sein's government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly and brokered cease-fires with most of the nation's ethnic insurgencies. After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament, which is performing its role with vigor.
But the rapid pace of change has also been accompanied by chaos, as ugly sectarian tensions have surfaced.
Human rights groups and a U.N. envoy have criticized the Myanmar government's failure to prevent attacks mostly on minority Muslims by majority Buddhists. Sectarian violence in western Rakhine state last year killed hundreds and drove more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes, intensifying long-running persecution of the stateless minority group. In an ominous development, Muslim-Buddhist violence spread in March to central Myanmar, killing dozens more.
The government's emergency response has been slow and some fear the unrest could spiral.
"If the new government and opposition can't fashion an effective response to this violence that brings justice and accountability, then it seems likely the violence will escalate," said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.
"The risk here is that the military may step in and set back the reform process. That risk is very real."
A senior State Department official said the U.S. is gravely concerned about the violence and wants the government to make a broader effort to stem tensions before they flare up. But he credits President Thein Sein for eventually issuing a message of tolerance and respect for religious differences -- unprecedented for the past 50 years when sectarian tensions were dealt with through use of force.
Although there's no national-level organization of unrest, individuals and groups appear to be inciting the violence, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. He did not identify who they might be.
Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d'affaires in the former capital city of Yangon, visited Myanmar last month. She said the presence of outside provocateurs could be part of a campaign to strengthen the military's hand and keep it involved in maintaining order in the country.
The communal unrest has spawned a refugee crisis that is spilling beyond Myanmar's borders. Since the outbreak of violence in Rakhine state near Bangladesh last year, an estimated 13,000 Rohingyas have fled by sea, seeking refuge in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries. Hundreds have drowned, and in some cases authorities have pushed back refugees from their shores or refused them humanitarian access.
Despite the drumbeat of bad news, the Obama administration remains upbeat about Myanmar, contending that the pace of change has exceeded expectations and that overall progress toward democracy is positive.
Critics, however, question whether, in the rush to reward progress, the U.S. has lost its leverage should Myanmar backtrack.
Walter Lohman, director of the Asia program at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said the administration was right to normalize diplomatic relations but moved too quickly to suspend investment and trade sanctions.
There are unresolved ethnic conflicts, a constitution skewed in favor of the military and political prisoners still in detention. National elections in 2015 are widely viewed as key to consolidating reforms.