US President Barack Obama told Burmese President Thein Sein during a long-awaited White House visit that he appreciates the leader’s efforts to lead the Asian country on its long, and sometimes difficult, path to democracy and assured him of US support.
Former general Thein Sein was the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. Activists objected to the invitation because of human rights concerns, but it marks a turnaround in international acceptance for Myanmar after decades of isolation and direct military rule.
Obama credited Thein Sein for political and economic reforms and ending significant tensions between their two countries.
“We very much appreciate your efforts in leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction, and we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you in what I know is a long and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct, path to follow,” Obama said.
In a speech at a university in Washington, Thein Sein called for a new era in US-Myanmar relations. On domestic challenges, he vowed to ensure that communal violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims that has claimed hundreds of lives over the past year would be brought to a halt and that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.
Obama said he expressed concern about violence against Muslims in the country.
“The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop,” he said.
Obama said they discussed Thein Sein’s intention to release more political prisoners, institutionalize political reform and rule of law and work to end ethnic conflict.
“As President [Thein] Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done,” he said.
Thein Sein previously served in a repressive 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 in September last year.
Six months ago, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country. The administration’s outreach to Myanmar’s generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens and reduce dependence on China.
Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Thein Sein will be addressing US businesspeople keen to capitalize on the opening of one of Asia’s few untapped markets.
The US last month announced it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar to US markets, and yesterday said the two governments will sign a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement.
Obama repeatedly referred to the nation as Myanmar, a departure from the common US government reference to the country as Burma. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as “a diplomatic courtesy” to show respect for ambitious reforms.
The last visit by a Myanmar leader to the White House was in September 1966 by Ne Win, an independence hero-turned-dictator, who began the nation’s descent from regional rice bowl to economic basket case.