Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein will visit the White House next week, the first such trip by a Myanmar head of state in almost 47 years and a sign of warming ties.
Myanmar state television announced the US visit on Monday, saying it comes at the invitation of President Barack Obama. It gave no exact date, but congressional staffers in Washington who were briefed on the upcoming trip said Thein Sein would meet Obama May 20.
The last Myanmar leader to visit the White House was the late dictator Ne Win in 1966.
The United States has been a prime mover in urging Thein Sein to introduce reforms after five decades of repressive military rule that ended when he became an elected head of state in 2011.
Last November, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar, a step in his administration’s efforts to end decades of diplomatic isolation of the country also known as Burma and to reward its shift from authoritarian rule.
The US applied political and economic sanctions against the previous military regime for its human rights abuses and undemocratic rule, but the Obama administration shifted its policy to engagement, gradually lifting most sanctions following reforms.
Sanctions imposed by the US and other nations had throttled Myanmar’s economic growth, so Thein Sein was eager to win Washington’s favour by freeing political prisoners, changing laws to open the political field to the pro-democracy movement of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and undertaking financial liberalisation, among other measures.
The Obama administration has yet to announce Thein Sein’s visit. The US-ASEAN Business Council, however, has already publicized that it and the US Chamber of Commerce will host a dinner for the Myanmar leader in Washington next Monday night
Thein Sein visited New York last September and met with then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but did not travel to Washington.
A White House welcome for Thein Sein could stir criticism from some people that the administration is moving too quickly to grant him diplomatic rewards.
An explosion of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state last year has spread in recent months to central Myanmar. Last year’s attacks left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced, while dozens more died in the more recent violence. Most of the victims have been minority Muslims.
While there’s still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration’s efforts to support reformers like Thein Sein, the unrest, and Myanmar authorities’ failure to prevent it, has deepened concern about the human rights situation in the country.