WASHINGTON – President Obama on Monday told Myanmar’s president during a long-awaited White House meeting that he appreciates the Asian leader’s efforts to lead the country on its sometimes difficult path to democracy and assured him of U.S. support.

Obama spoke as he sat in the Oval Office with former general Thein Sein, who became the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. Activists object to the invitation because of concerns over human rights in the country, but it marks a turnaround in international acceptance for Myanmar after decades of isolation and direct military rule.

Obama credited Thein Sein for political and economic reforms and for ending significant tensions between their two nations.

“We very much appreciate your efforts in leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction and we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you in what I know is a long and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow,” Obama said.

In a speech at a university in Washington, Thein Sein called for a new era in U.S.-Myanmar relations. On domestic challenges, he vowed to ensure that communal violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims that has claimed hundreds of lives over the past year would be brought to a halt and that all the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Obama said he expressed concern about violence against Muslims in the country. “The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop,” he said.

Obama said they discussed Thein Sein’s intention to release more political prisoners, institutionalize political reform and rule of law so it endures and work to end ethnic conflict. “As President (Thein) Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done,” he said.

Thein Sein previously served in a repressive junta, and his meetings at the White House and Congress would have been all-but-impossible before he took the helm of a nominally civilian government in 2011. His name was only deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the U.S. last September.

Six months ago Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country also known as Burma. The administration’s outreach to Myanmar’s generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens and reduce dependence on China.

Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Thein Sein will be addressing American businessmen keen to capitalize on the opening of one of Asia’s few untapped markets.

The U.S. last month announced it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar to U.S. markets, and on Tuesday the two governments will sign a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement.

Obama repeatedly referred to the nation as Myanmar, a departure from the common U.S. government reference to the country as Burma. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as “a diplomatic courtesy” to show respect for the ambitious reforms the country is pursuing.

The last visit by a Myanmar leader to the White House was in September 1966 by Ne Win, an independence hero-turned dictator.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.