US President Barack Obama on Monday saluted Myanmar President Thein Sein for his leadership in pushing through startling political reforms, but warned that violence against Muslims must stop.
As his guest became the first leader of his country in almost 50 years to visit the White House, Obama praised Myanmar’s journey away from brutal junta rule and promised Washington would offer more political and economic support.
Seated with Thein Sein in the Oval Office, Obama said previously tortured US-Myanmar relations had eased because of “the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform”.
Obama repeatedly used the word “Myanmar” rather than Burma. The former is the name introduced during military rule, and which is slowly being used more frequently by US officials as a courtesy to the reforming government.
The US president said that Thein Sein had made “genuine efforts” to solve the intricate ethnic wars that have long torn at Myanmar’s unity, but expressed “deep concern” on the plight of Rohingya Muslim minority.
“The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them, needs to stop,” Obama said.
The visit went ahead despite accusations by human rights groups that Myanmar authorities turned a blind eye or worse to a wave of deadly attacks against the Rohingya, who are not even considered citizens.
“Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths – Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others – must feel part of this new national identity,” he said, while stopping short of directly mentioning the Rohingya.
“We must end all forms of discrimination and ensure not only that intercommunal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice,” he said at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, said that the reforms he has undertaken were “unprecedented” and called for “maximum international support”.
“Periods of transition are always fraught with risk. But I know my country and my people,” he said.
“I know how much people want to see democracy take root, put behind decades of isolation, catch up with other Asian economies and end all violence and fighting,” he said.
Thein Sein surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, reaching ceasefires with ethnic rebel groups, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.
The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections – testing whether the military would truly cede power and potentially let Nobel laureate Suu Kyi become president.
Thein Sein called for a continued role by the military, saying that the armed forces had helped preserve the country’s stability and usher in democracy.
The military seized power in 1962 under junta leader Ne Win, who in 1966 was the last leader of the country to visit the White House. He met president Lyndon Johnson as the Vietnam War raged.
Thein Sein spoke only obliquely of his motivation for reform. Many experts believe that the proudly independent nation feared that its isolation had pushed it too far into the orbit of China.
In a timing that may have aimed at tempering suspicions in Beijing, the White House announced later Monday that President Xi Jinping would visit California next month for his first summit with Obama since the Chinese leader took office.
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.
The Obama administration has already suspended most sanctions on Myanmar and on Tuesday will sign an agreement for greater dialogue on trade, hoping to show the country tangible benefits for embracing reform.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, seen as a rising star in the rival Republican Party, accused Obama of moving too quickly on normalisation with Myanmar, saying “the jury is still out” on reform.
“When rewards continue absent progress, it undermines the ultimate success of the effort and sends the wrong message to the Burmese people about American intentions,” Rubio said.