x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Mixed reception for first Myanmar president to visit US

Thein Sein has become the first Myanmar president to be welcomed to the White House in almost 47 years, crowning a dramatic diplomatic rehabilitation for his nation after years of international isolation.

WASHINGTON // Thein Sein yesterday became the first Myanmar president to be welcomed to the White House in almost 47 years, crowning a dramatic diplomatic rehabilitation for his nation after years of international isolation.

But activists are angry about Barack Obama hosting the former general, and legislators are wary. Thein Sein has led the shift from decades of direct military rule, but has stalled on some reform commitments and failed to stop bloody outbursts of ethnic violence.

He 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 US last September.

He arrived in Washington on Saturday, six months after Mr Obama made history with an unprecedented US presidential visit to 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 US businessmen keen to capitalise on the opening of one of Asia's few untapped markets.

"President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform," the White House said in its announcement of Monday's visit.

The US last month announced it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar to US markets, and there could be progress towards a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement during Thein Sein's visit.

The most significant outcome of the trip could be a symbolic one. Mr Obama was expected to use "Myanmar" - the country name adopted by the junta in 1989 - when he meets Thein Sein. However, the US will keep using "Burma" in official documents.

Human rights activists and Myanmar campaigners have sharply criticised the administration for inviting Thein Sein, arguing it sends the wrong message and wastes leverage to press for further democratic change. The administration says it is important to signal US support for his reform agenda, likely still opposed by military hardliners.

Ahead of the trip, Myanmar released at least 19 political prisoners in what has become a pattern for amnesties that coincide with high-profile international meetings as a way of highlighting the government's benevolent policies. Right groups say at least 160 political detainees are still held.

There has been mixed progress on 11 reform commitments made in November just before Mr Obama visited.

The government has permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its notorious prisons for the first time in seven years. But it has not allowed adequate humanitarian access to conflict zones where tens of thousands have been displaced. Authorities have failed to stop, and may have abetted in some cases, an explosion in communal violence that has killed hundreds and led to segregation of Muslim communities.

The US Campaign for Burma said Thein Sein's trip follows a troubling downwards trend in Myanmar, and that "instead of honouring an abusive leader" the US should tie its concessions to conditions.

The Obama administration's engagement with Myanmar has been a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Washington, but some lawmakers have begun to voice concern that the US could be moving too fast. House members have opposed moves for resumption of even preliminary military-to-military cooperation.

"I'm incredibly concerned about the facts on the ground in Burma, including human rights violations against ethnic nationalities, the use of rape as a weapon of war and brutal violence against Muslims - including women and children," Joe Crowley, a prominent voice in the House of Representatives on Myanmar, said.

He urged the administration to stick to its initial policy of "action for action" in its relations with Myanmar.

On the eve of Thein Sein's arrival, Mr Crowley, a Democrat, and the Republican, Peter King, introduced legislation aimed at extending a ban on gems imports from Myanmar that will lapse in July.

Much of the jade and rubies Myanmar exports come from northern Kachin State, scene of bitter fighting in recent months between the army and ethnic rebels.