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Asia-pacific

Burma's Thein Sein in landmark White House visit

© AFP

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-05-20

Burmese President Thein Sein became the first leader from the country to visit the White House in nearly half a century on Monday, but the historic meeting with US President Barack Obama has angered critics of Burma’s human rights record.

Burmese President Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama in a landmark trip to the White House on Monday, becoming the first leader from his country to visit Washington in nearly 50 years.

In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, former general Thein Sein was welcomed to the White House by Obama, who referred to Burma as Myanmar in a symbolic gesture. The latter name was introduced in the country while it was under military rule, and has gradually come into greater use by US officials as ties between the two countries have improved.

Obama congratulated Thein Sein’s reform efforts in Burma, promising that Washington would offer further political and economic support in the future. The US president, however, expressed his “deep concern” over ethnic violence targeting the country’s minority Rohingya Muslim population.

"The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop," Obama said.

Speaking throught a translator, Thein Sein told reporters that his country faced "many challenges," adding that Obama's policy of engagement towards Burma had helped the reform process.

"For democracy to flourish in our country, we will have to move forward, and we will have to undertake political reforms and economic reforms," Thein Sein said.

US support for Burma reforms

Since coming to power as a civilian in 2011, Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.

The US has been quick to signal support for the country’s rehabilitation and encourage further reforms by engaging with its leadership and lifting economic and political sanctions.

“President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform,'' the White House said in its announcement of Monday's visit.

Thein Sein’s visit to the White House comes six months after Obama made history with an unprecedented visit to Burma. Meanwhile, recent weeks have seen the US end sweeping restrictions on visas for Burmese officials.

Obama administration 'ignoring crimes against humanity'

However, critics have argued that the Obama administration’s decision to invite Thein Sein to Washington was premature and takes pressure off Burma to address current abuses, such as recent anti-Muslim violence, to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.

A recent Human Rights Watch report accused Burma of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority who are not even considered citizens of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group that plans protests against Thein Sein, said that the United States should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Burma as a condition to stop abuse of the Rohingya.

"President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's executive director.

There has also been mixed progress on 11 reform commitments made by the Burmese government in November just before Obama visited.

The country’s leadership has permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its notorious prisons for the first time in seven years, but hasn't allowed adequate humanitarian access to conflict zones where tens of thousands have been displaced.

US lawmakers have also voiced apprehension over the extent of the country’s engagement with Burma.

“I'm incredibly concerned about the facts on the ground in Burma, including human rights violations against ethnic nationalities, the use of rape as a weapon of war and brutal violence against Muslims - including women and children,'' Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, a prominent voice in Congress on Burma, said in a statement. He urged the administration to stick to its initial policy of “action for action'' in its relations with Burma.

On the eve of Thein Sein's arrival, Crowley and Republican Representative Peter King introduced legislation aimed at extending a ban on gem imports from Burma that will lapse in July. Much of the jade and rubies Burma exports come from northern Kachin State, the scene of bitter fighting in recent months between the army and ethnic rebels.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-05-20

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