Burmese President Thein Sein on Saturday began the first visit to Washington by a leader of his country in nearly 50 years as the US throws its support behind his reforms.
The former general, who initiated a wave of reforms after taking office in 2011, flew into Washington and was holding a weekend of private meetings before talks at the White House today, people familiar with the trip said.
The last time a leader of Myanmar visited the White House was in 1966, as the country was entering decades of military rule that estranged it from the US and made China the reclusive country’s main partner.
US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November last year and has suspended most major sanctions against the country in hopes of showing benefits to reforms.
Thein Sein is to meet today with the US president and also with US businesses, which are now free to invest in Myanmar.
Critics say that the US risks running out of leverage and point with alarm to recent anti-Muslim violence in the country, during which security forces were accused of failing to stop, or of even supporting, sectarian attacks.
Ahead of his departure to Washington, Myanmar freed another 20 political prisoners.
It was the latest prisoner release under Thein Sein, who has also eased censorship and allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi — under house arrest for most of the past two decades — to enter parliament.
A group campaigning for democracy in Myanmar accuses Thein Sein’s government of using political prisoners for public relations purposes.
“Thein Sein seems to have judged, sadly apparently correctly, that the Obama administration is particularly gullible and likely to respond positively to this kind of manipulative use of political prisoner releases,” Burma Campaign UK said in a statement.
US officials contend that Thein Sein has made sincere efforts and that problems such as recent violence have roots that predate his rule.