Burmese President Thein Sein is set to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama next week, marking the first official visit to Washington by a leader of the former pariah nation in nearly five decades, the White House confirmed Wednesday.
“President Obama will welcome His Excellency President Thein Sein to the White House on Monday, May 20, 2013,” said a statement from the White House press secretary’s office.
Thein Sein has embarked on substantial democratic reforms since his government took power in March of 2011, and the meeting with Obama, set for May 20, is seen as an acknowledgement by Washington of the progress he has made in reversing decades of military misrule in Burma.
The meeting also follows a visit to Burma last year by Obama, who became the first sitting U.S. leader to tour the country and who pushed Thein Sein to speed up and strengthen the reform process.
“Since President Obama’s historic trip to Rangoon last November, the United States has continued to advocate for continued progress on reform by President Thein Sein’s government, in close cooperation with [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, civil society leaders, and the international community,” the White House said.
“The President looks forward to discussing with President Thein Sein the many remaining challenges to efforts to develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions, and bring economic opportunity to the people of his country, and to exploring how the United States can help,” it said.
Reforms already undertaken by Burma’s new and nominally civilian government include the release of large numbers of political prisoners, the easing of restrictions on assembly and the press, and renewed attempts at dialogue with armed ethnic minority groups.
But the White House held out on meeting Thein Sein during his first visit as president to the U.S. in September last year, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the easing of an import ban on Burmese goods at a meeting with Thein Sein on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting, but Washington made clear that it remained cautious about the pace of reforms under the new government.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was also traveling in the U.S. at the time and was afforded red carpet treatment in Washington, visiting the capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
The National League for Democracy leader, who was held under years of house arrest under the former military regime, also held meetings with Clinton and Obama on the status of economic sanctions against her country.
Agence France-Presse said in a report that Thein Sein's landmark state visit to the United States could be delayed because of a cyclone threatening to strike his country's northwest coast, quoting Aung Min, a minister of the president’s office.
"We have arranged the trip. But it's not certain yet. We will announce [the departure date] depending on the outcome of the cyclone," Aung Min said.
The U.N. has warned of potential “life-threatening conditions” for 8.2 million people owing to Cyclone Mahasen, which is heading across the Bay of Bengal towards the Burmese-Bangladesh border and expected to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has warned that around half of approximately 140,000 Muslims who fled communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state last year are situated in low-lying areas at risk of flooding and storm surges.
Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.