In symbolic landmark, Myanmar leader heads to White House

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday becomes the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century, in one of the most symbolic US gestures yet to support his reforms.

In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the former general will meet with President Barack Obama and later seek to woo US businesses that see a lucrative market in the former Western pariah nation.

Critics say that Mr Obama's invitation was premature and takes pressure off Myanmar to address still-alarming abuses such as recent anti-Muslim violence to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.

Mr Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.

Speaking at the office of Voice of America, Mr Thein Sein said he would tell Mr Obama that the reform path is stable and call for a complete end to the economic sanctions which the United States has mostly suspended.

"Relations have greatly improved thanks to the policies of President Obama," he told a forum at the broadcaster on Sunday.

"For our political reforms, we also need more economic development."

The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections - testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power, potentially to Ms Suu Kyi.

Mr Thein Sein did not budge on the constitution's allocation of 25 percent of seats in parliament to the armed forces, saying that the military had preserved Myanmar's independence.

"It is a defensive force. You cannot deny their place in politics," he said.

The army seized control of the country then known as Burma in 1962, ushering in decades of isolation. Military ruler Ne Win in 1966 was the last leader to visit the White House, where he met president Lyndon Johnson.

Mr Obama has made Myanmar a key priority and visited in November. To some, Myanmar represents the biggest success from his pledge in his 2009 inaugural address to reach out to US foes if they "unclench" their fists.

Many experts believe that a key motivating factor for Myanmar's reforms was to ease its reliance on neighbouring China, which developed an overwhelming influence in the proudly independent country amid US and European sanctions.

In recent weeks, the United States ended sweeping restrictions on visas and top trade official Demetrios Marantis visited Myanmar to start discussions on economic measures such as offering duty-free access for certain products.

But in a signal ahead of Mr Thein Sein's visit, Representative Joe Crowley, who has long been active on Myanmar, introduced legislation to extend for one year a ban on the country's gems - a key money-maker for the military.

Mr Crowley, a member of Mr Obama's Democratic Party from New York, said he was "very concerned" about human rights violations in Myanmar including "brutal attacks" in recent months against the Muslim minority.

A recent Human Rights Watch report accused Myanmar 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 Mr Thein Sein, said that the United States should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Myanmar 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 Ms Jennifer Quigley, the group's executive director.

Mr Thein Sein, asked about the violence, said only that troubles in Rakhine state "started out of crime, not ethnic strife."

Obama administration officials contend that Mr Thein Sein has made sincere efforts to address ethnic and sectarian violence, whose roots predate his tenure.

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