In Further Firming of Relations, Myanmar President Visits White House

BY Larisa Epatko  May 20, 2013 at 1:10 PM EDT

Presidential HandshakePresident Obama and Myanmar’s President Thein Sein in Yangon on Nov. 19, 2012. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters.

Myanmar President Thein Sein becomes the first leader of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to visit the White House in 47 years on Monday. Their meeting is viewed as an affirmation of the Southeast Asian nation’s democratic transition.

The last White House visit was by the late Burmese dictator Ne Win in 1966 during the Vietnam War.

Thein Sein’s visit comes after President Barack Obama traveled to Myanmar in November, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so, in a further sign of warming relations. “We’ve reached a point in our relationship where (Thein Sein) is received in Washington. That’s a big deal,” said Priscilla Clapp, who headed the U.S. Embassy in Burma between 1999 and 2002.

A statement from the White House referred to the country as “Myanmar” — the current government’s preference — rather than Burma, and described U.S. support:

“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.”

But some advocacy groups are concerned that the Obama administration is rewarding Myanmar with a White House visit before Thein Sein has followed through on all of his promises for reforms, including releasing political prisoners and allowing humanitarian aid access to conflict areas in the North.

In particular, Human Rights Watch called the government’s lack of response to the violence and restrictions placed on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing” in a report issued last month. The country’s internal ethnic violence is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting.

Thein Sein called it “pure fabrication” that the Myanmar army would condone or participate in mob violence against the Muslim minority in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

Along with rewarding Myanmar with a White House visit, the United States has lifted many sanctions and allowed U.S. companies to do business with oil, gas and extractive resource industries before waiting for the reforms to go further, said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Other sanctions, such as military assistance, are still in place but those were never intended to be rewarded, he said.

In terms of economic development, Thein Sein plans to meet with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an effort to broaden U.S. investments to help balance the country’s current Asian investors, including China and Japan, said Clapp.

To encourage business investment, Myanmar needs to make some basic improvements, including a dependable electricity supply and an independent judiciary so businesses know they have some legal recourse, said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative at the Open Society Foundations.

Myanmar has said it wants to become more transparent in terms of business dealings, and has started making public its budget and revenue streams, said Aung-Thwin. “They’re aspiring to [greater transparency],” but their actions will show “whether they can actually do it,” she said.

After decades of military rule, Myanmar has been in a state of “suspended animation” and there are some “dark corners” in society that have come to light that the government will have to address, said Clapp. “It’s good (for the United States) to keep the pressure on them to bring them into the 21st century.”

Read More

View all of our World coverage.