Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on Monday became the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century, in a warm welcome by the U.S. for the head of the once-pariah state and a strong show of support for his reform program.
In a scene that would have been unthinkable three years ago under Myanmar’s former military regime, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed Thein Sein, an ex-general, to talks in the Oval Office while protesters gathered outside.
Rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers were wary that the visit was premature and likely to take the pressure off of Thein Sein’s government to implement promised reforms.
Speaking after the talks, Obama praised Thein Sein’s leadership in spearheading the country’s democratic transition over the past two years but raised “deep concerns” about ethnic violence against minority Muslims in Myanmar and other rights issues.
Thein Sein vowed to push forward with reforms in Myanmar while asking for U.S. support amid the many “obstacles and challenges” facing the country, which is also known as Burma.
“Our democratic government is just two years old and we have carried out many political reforms,” he said.
"For our democracy to flourish in our country, we will have to undertake more political and economic reforms in the years ahead,” he said, adding that Myanmar will need the “assistance and understanding” of the U.S. and the rest of the international community to do so.
Thein Sein’s visit repays a trip in November by Obama to Myanmar, after the two countries formalized their diplomatic relations last May for the first time in more than 20 years.
Since his reformist government took power in 2011 following decades of military misrule in Myanmar, Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on assembly and the press, and renewed attempts at dialogue with armed ethnic minority groups.
His government has also allowed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest during the junta regime, to enter parliament following landmark by-elections last year.
In response, the Obama administration has suspended sanctions against Myanmar in an attempt to encourage further change and extend its influence in the former military-ruled nation.
But rights groups have said the steps fall short of pledged reforms and the government has failed to address abuses, including recent ethnic violence against Muslims in Rakhine state and central Myanmar over the past year.
Two outbreaks of violence in Rakhine state last year left nearly 200 dead and hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Muslim Rohingyas displaced, and the clashes in central Myanmar this spring killed dozens.
Obama said Thein Sein has made "genuine efforts" to solve the ethnic conflicts that have plagued Myanmar for decades, but urged an end to the violence.
"The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop," he said at the briefing after the meeting.
But he praised the country’s progress toward reform, saying Thein Sein was the “first to recognize” further changes needed.
"What has allowed this shift in relations is the leadership that President Thein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform,” he said, referring to the country by its official name, instead of “Burma,” in a gesture of support.
'End to all forms of discrimination'
In a speech after the White House visit, Thein Sein urged an end to the ethnic violence and ethnic discrimination in the country, but stopped short of mentioning the Rohingyas.
"Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths—Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and others—must feel part of this new national identity," he said at a forum at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“We must end all forms of discrimination and we must ensure not only that intercommunal violence is brought to a halt but that all perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Thein Sein said the government was working toward forging a lasting peace with ethnic minority militias in the country’s borderlands, saying he was “confident” peace could soon be forged with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
Myanmar is also in the process of working to reform the role of its military, developing “a new vision of national security and strategy necessary to ensure people’s human security.”
The military—which under the country’s 2008 constitution is reserved a quarter of the seats in parliament—has come under fire from rights groups for abuses committed in fighting against the Kachin, as well as for standing by amid the sectarian clashes in Rakhine and central Myanmar.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch had urged Obama to use Thein Sein’s visit to insist Myanmar implement past commitments to reform, including pledges made just before the U.S. president’s visit to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, last year.
“If the U.S. keeps delivering carrots on the same schedule while Burma breaks its promises, Burma’s leaders will conclude that they are no longer under serious international pressure to follow through on reforms,” HRW’s Asia advocacy director John Sifton said in a statement on the visit.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma staged demonstrations outside the White House and elsewhere in Washington against Thein Sein’s visit.
“President Thein Sein has not taken any recent steps to investigate allegations of government-perpetrated violence, revise laws that condone human rights abuses, or hold anyone accountable for gross violations of international law,” the group said in a statement.
A report released Monday by the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights said it had found evidence that police were complicit in attacks in the Mingalar Zayone quarter of Meikhtila in March that resulted in a “massacre” of 20 children.
On the eve of the talks Thein Sein told the Washington Post that the military “will always have a special place” in government and dismissed as “pure fabrication” allegations that the military had condoned or participated in violence perpetrated against Muslims.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.