WASHINGTON – Myanmar’s leader, President Thein Sein, plans a landmark visit to Washington later this month, a source said Thursday, as the United States eased visa restrictions in a sign of support despite a surge in anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.
Thein Sein, who will be the first leader of the country to visit the U.S. in half a century, is planning to travel to Washington around May 20 or May 21, a staff member at the U.S. Congress said.
The trip will include a summit with President Barack Obama at the White House. The last visit to Washington by a head of Myanmar was in 1966, when military leader Ne Win was invited by President Lyndon Johnson.
In another step toward thawing relations, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday ended a 1996 ban on U.S. visas to Myanmar nationals accused of hindering democracy during the country’s decades of harsh military rule. Separate restrictions remain on visas for nationals accused of human rights violations.
A State Department official said the 1996 ban was overly broad by including government workers, officers and even some pensioners.
“Clearly, many people in those categories are now contributing to the reform process and need to engage” through visits to the United States, the official told reporters.
But even as it lifted the 17-year-old travel ban, the White House moved to extend by one year an emergency measure that allows U.S. officials to impose new sanctions in response to future human rights abuses by Myanmarese authorities, administration officials said.
The mixed decision reflects what one administration official described as “a very bumpy process” as Myanmar’s civilian-led government seeks to extend civil rights to the country’s 48 million inhabitants while improving ties with the United States and other Western powers.
Although Myanmar has sought to reform its image after decades as an international pariah, the country continues to suffer from spasms of ethnic and sectarian violence, most recently between Buddhists and a Muslim minority in central Rakhine Province.
“Even as we recognize the government’s tremendous progress, we of course remain concerned that the nascent reforms remain vulnerable to elements within Burma that oppose a democratic transition,” a senior State Department official told reporters. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
The lifting of the visa ban — imposed in 1996 during the Clinton administration — is intended to “encourage and strengthen the reform process in Burma,” said the official.
Still, lingering concern over the country’s future prompted the decision to extend the emergency measure and allow U.S. officials to sanction Myanmar officials and institutions in response to bad behavior, a senior administration official said.
“There are still problematic areas inside Burma,” the official said, “and where there are human rights abuses perpetuated, we are going to remain very much eyes wide open.”
The move contrasts with the policy of the European Union, which last week terminated most measures entirely. The 27-nation bloc announced it was lifting sanctions — previously only suspended — to support Myanmar’s “remarkable process” toward democracy, even as it warned that the nation must curb the recent outbursts of ethnic violence. Like the U.S., the EU retains an embargo on arms sales to Myanmar.
An official from Thein Sein’s office declined to comment on the Washington trip but welcomed U.S. moves to relax visa restrictions. “We see their termination of the visa ban as a support to increase the momentum of the president’s reform process,” said the official.
Meanwhile, the congressional source said the Obama administration is considering starting to use the name Myanmar, the preferred usage of the country’s leaders, rather than Burma, as favored by exiled groups. Washington is also reviewing whether Myanmar can enter an agreement that would extend duty-free access for some 5,000 different types of goods.
Obama visited Myanmar in November, when he praised the nation for its democratic transition but called for progress on reforms, particularly in the treatment of ethnic minorities.
Thein Sein’s visit is expected to be controversial due to a surge in violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim people who are not considered citizens by Myanmar.
A recent Human Rights Watch study accused Myanmar of a “campaign of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya. The watchdog said many Rohingya were among 211 people who have been killed since last June, while tens of thousands have been forcibly displaced.
Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based pressure group, accused the Obama administration of only responding to positive developments and not to setbacks.
“To invite him at this point of time would really just reinforce the message of a positive relationship when there really has been no move by the U.S. government to tie this to the Burmese government taking necessary steps” to curb the violence, she said.
The State Department official distanced the visa easing from the communal violence, saying that the United States had “profound concerns” but pointing to a statement by Thein Sein in support of religious freedom and tolerance.
“The military regime, for half a century, would respond to conflict with more violence and repression. This central government is trying to do things differently,” the official said.
Thein Sein has previously visited the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly, but only held meetings in New York.
A former general, he surprised many skeptics by launching a raft of reforms after taking office in 2011 as a nominal civilian, including freeing political prisoners and relaxing censorship.