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President Thein Sein on Monday will be the first leader from Burma 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 pariah nation.
Critics say that Obama’s invitation was premature and takes pressure off Burma to address still-alarming abuses such as recent anti-Muslim violence to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.
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, Thein Sein said he would tell 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 Burma is scheduled to hold elections – testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power, potentially to Suu Kyi.
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 Burma’s independence.
“It is a defensive force. You cannot deny their place in politics,” he said.
The army seized control of the country 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.
Obama has made Burma a key priority and visited in November. To some, Burma 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 Burma’s reforms was to ease its reliance on neighboring China, which developed an overwhelming influence in the proudly independent country amid US and European sanctions.
In recent weeks, the US ended sweeping restrictions on visas and top trade official Demetrios Marantis visited Burma to start discussions on economic measures such as offering duty-free access for certain products.
But in a signal ahead of Thein Sein’s visit, Representative Joe Crowley, who has long been active on Burma, introduced legislation to extend for one year a ban on the country’s gems – a key money-maker for the military.
Crowley, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party from New York, said he was “very concerned” about human rights violations in Burma including “brutal attacks” in recent months against the Muslim minority.
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 US should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Burma as a condition to stop abuses targeting 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.
Thein Sein, asked about the violence, said only that troubles in Arakan state “started out of crime, not ethnic strife.”
Obama administration officials contend that Thein Sein has made sincere efforts to address ethnic and sectarian violence, whose roots predate his tenure.