Burmese President Thein Sein is visiting the White House, becoming the first leader of his nation to do so in nearly half a century. It marks the latest U.S. effort to reward him for introducing reforms after decades of military rule.
The White House meeting with President Barack Obama also represents a rapid diplomatic boost for Thein Sein, whom the United States removed from a blacklist of foreign officials denied entry to the country only last year. Obama previously recognized Burma’s reform efforts by making the first visit to that nation by a sitting U.S. president last November.
The White House says Obama is committed to supporting countries such as Burma that make a decision to “embrace reform.”
But, rights groups accuse Obama of sending the wrong message to Burma. They say Thein Sein’s White House invitation reduces pressure on him to release political dissidents and stop alleged rights abuses against Burma’s ethnic minorities.
Some U.S. lawmakers also have said they will try to slow the process of lifting U.S. sanctions on Burma to keep the pressure on Thein Sein to address those concerns.
Some analysts say the Obama administration wants to help Mr. Thein Sein to overcome resistance within the Burmese military toward further democratic change. They say the U.S. embrace of Burma also is part of a strategy to boost ties with Southeast Asian nations as a counterweight to China’s growing regional power.
The White House said Obama and Thein Sein planned to discuss “many remaining challenges to [Burmese] efforts to develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions, and bring economic opportunity” to the Burmese people.
Thein Sein addressed some of those issues Sunday at a town hall meeting at the Voice of America.
He said ethnic violence against minority Muslims in western Burma is criminal behavior, not civil strife. He also acknowledged what he called “heavy-handed” actions by some police in their efforts to control political dissent in his country. He said both protesters and police must understand their responsibilities, however, as democracy takes hold.
Thein Sein told a group of about 30 Burmese living in the United States that the development of democracy in their homeland must go hand in hand with economic development, which he said must be a priority.
U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights released a report Monday [http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/about/places/burma/], accusing Burmese authorities of standing by while militants attacked an Islamic boarding school in the central town of Meiktila in March. It said the assailants killed at least 20 children and four teachers.
The report’s lead author, Richard Sollom, said Obama should use Monday’s meeting to “persuade Burma’s leader that the only path from tyranny to democracy is through the promotion and respect of human rights.” Sollom also called on Thein Sein to support an independent investigation into the Meiktila killings and to “bring perpetrators to justice and speak out forcefully against ongoing anti-Muslim violence.”
Burmese authorities repeatedly have disputed accusations by rights groups that security forces ignore or participate in the violence.
Washington has been re-engaging the Burmese government since a long-ruling military junta stepped aside in late 2010 and permitted democratic elections the following year.