Burmese President Thein Sein yesterday became the first president of Myanmar to be welcomed to the White House in almost 47 years, crowning a dramatic diplomatic rehabilitation for his nation after years of isolation.
However, activists are angry about US President Barack Obama hosting Thein Sein and many US lawmakers remain wary of his reforms. He has led the shift from decades of direct military rule, but has stalled on some reform commitments and failed to stop ethnic violence.
He arrived in Washington on Saturday, six months after Obama made history with an unprecedented visit to Myanmar.
“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 yesterday.
The most significant outcome of Thein Sein’s trip could be a symbolic one. Obama is expected to use “Myanmar” — the country name adopted by the junta in 1989 — when he meets Thein Sein. However, the US will keep using “Burma” in official documents.
Thein Sein will be accorded the protocol due to a foreign president, yet his welcome will pale next to that granted in September last year to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who met Obama and was presented by Congress with the highest civilian award it can bestow.
The US administration says it is important to signal US support for Thein Sein’s reform agenda, but some lawmakers have begun to voice concern that Washington could be moving too fast.
“I’m incredibly concerned about the facts on the ground in Burma, including human rights violations against ethnic nationalities, the use of rape as a weapon of war and brutal violence against Muslims — including women and children,” US Representative Joe Crowley said in a statement.
On the eve of Thein Sein’s arrival, Crowley and Representative Peter King introduced legislation to extend a ban on gems imports from Myanmar that lapses in July.
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