White House hosts Thein Sein in symbolic gesture of support
Updated: 2013-05-21 07:26
Previously barred Myanmar leader to meet Obama and woo business
Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday becomes the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century, in one of the most symbolic US gestures yet to support his reforms.
In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the former general will meet with President Barack Obama and later seek to woo US businesses that see a lucrative market in Myanmar.
Myanmar President Thein Sein speaks during a town hall event at Voice of America in Washington on Sunday. Yuri Gripas / Reuters
Critics say Obama's invitation was premature and takes pressure off Myanmar to address still-alarming issues such as recent anti-Muslim violence.
Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.
Speaking at the office of Voice of America, Thein Sein said he would tell Obama that the reform path is stable and call for a complete end to the economic sanctions that the United States has mostly suspended.
"Relations have greatly improved thanks to the policies of President Obama," he told a forum at the broadcaster on Sunday. "For our political reforms, we also need more economic development."
The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections - testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power.
Thein Sein previously served in a junta, and his meetings at the White House and Congress would have been all but impossible before he took the helm of a nominally civilian government in 2011. His name was only deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the US last September.
Taken off blacklist
He arrived in Washington on Saturday, six months after Obama made history with an unprecedented US presidential visit to the country. The administration's outreach to Myanmar's generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens.
"President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform," the White House said in its announcement of Monday's visit.
Thein Sein did not budge on the constitution's allocation of 25 percent of seats in parliament to the armed forces, saying that the military had preserved Myanmar's independence.
"It is a defensive force. You cannot deny their place in politics," he said.
The army seized control of the country then known as Burma in 1962, ushering in decades of isolation. Military ruler Ne Win in 1966 was the last leader to visit the White House, where he met then-president Lyndon Johnson.
In recent weeks, the US ended sweeping restrictions on visas and top trade official Demetrios Marantis visited Myanmar to start discussions on economic measures such as offering duty-free access for certain products.
But in a signal ahead of Thein Sein's visit, Representative Joe Crowley, who has long been active on Myanmar, introduced legislation to extend for one year a ban on the country's gems - a key money-maker for the military.
Crowley, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from New York, said he was "very concerned" about human rights violations in Myanmar including "brutal attacks" in recent months against the Rohingya, the country's Muslim minority.
The US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group that plans protests against Thein Sein, said that the US should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Myanmar as a condition to stop abuse of the Rohingya.
"President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's executive director.
When asked about the violence, Thein Sein said only that troubles in the state of Rakhine "started out of crime, not ethnic strife".
Obama administration officials contend that Thein Sein has made sincere efforts to address ethnic and sectarian violence, the roots of which predate his tenure.