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Myanmar Leader's Visit To Washington A Historic Occasion


For the first time in nearly five decades, the president of Myanmar paid a visit to the White House. Thein Sein has overseen some dramatic changes in his country, long a pariah on the world stage. And the Obama administration has been trying to encourage those reforms by easing sanctions. President Obama himself went to Myanmar, also known as Burma, last year. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, there is still a lot of work to do.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There was no big press conference or White House dinner, but President Obama says this visit is significant after decades of tensions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What has allowed this shift in relations is the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform.

KELEMEN: President Obama calls it a long journey and says the U.S. is ready to help.

PRESIDENT THEIN SEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: President Thein Sein thanked President Obama for the invitation to the White House and admitted that his country faces many challenges in carrying out reforms. His welcome here was warm, but nothing like the reception given to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was honored by Congress during her visit last year. One expert on Myanmar, David Steinberg of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, says U.S. policy has been too closely tied to her.

DAVID STEINBERG: In no country at any time should the United States foreign policy toward that country be dependent on one person from that country, if it's the British prime minister or the president of Mexico or Aung San Suu Kyi or anybody else. But, in fact, our policy has been determined by Aung San Suu Kyi until very recently.

KELEMEN: Steinberg says it's important now for the U.S. to give a boost to Thein Sein to help him continue the reform process he began two years ago.

STEINBERG: The reforms are real. I think he is quite sincere. Now, that doesn't mean the reforms are going to be easy.

KELEMEN: He says there are die-hard elements of the former ruling military junta who don't want to see the reform process continue.

STEINBERG: How do you change a country that for half a century has had really very little experience with tolerating diverse views? We've seen that now as a problem in the country.

KELEMEN: While the government has been trying to resolve numerous ethnic conflicts, there are growing concerns, which President Obama raised, about the rising anti-Muslim violence in the mainly Buddhist country. That was also discussed in a private dinner last night with Thein Sein, according to Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International.

FRANK JANNUZI: And the government has not done a good job in this area, and frankly neither have opposition political parties, who are reluctant to take on this issue. This issue has the potential to derail much of the positive things that we hope are going to happen in Myanmar in the coming years, and it needs to be dealt with on a priority basis.

KELEMEN: Human rights groups have many other concerns as well. Though Myanmar has released hundreds of political prisoners in the past couple of years, there are many still behind bars. And Jannuzi says he's encouraging U.S. businesses to keep their eyes wide open as they look for opportunities in the mineral-rich nation.

JANNUZI: This is the real challenge for businesses is finding someone clean to do business with. You're talking about an economy that has been dominated by cronies of the military junta, and so it's really incumbent upon businesses both to vet their partners, but also to find new partners to create new space for entrepreneurs to do business in Myanmar.

KELEMEN: Myanmar is also strategically important for the U.S. - located between China and India. While some Asia watchers see this budding relationship as a diplomatic victory for the Obama administration, human rights activists worry that the U.S. may be giving up its leverage too quickly by easing sanctions and welcoming President Thein Sein to the White House. Michele Kelemen, NPR news, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.