WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday welcomed Myanmar’s president to the White House — the first such visit in nearly 50 years — and hailed the Southeast Asian nation’s progress on democratic reforms, but emphasized that much work remains to be done.
After meeting privately with President Thein Sein in the Oval Office, Obama told reporters that Myanmar must release more political prisoners and take steps to end the ethnic violence that has left tens of thousands of Muslims displaced.
“This is a long journey and there is still much more to be done,” Obama said. “The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them, needs to stop.”
The meeting was part of the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Myanmar, also known as Burma, encouraging the repressive and long-isolated country to pursue democratic reforms. Thein Sein’s visit, the first by a Myanmarese leader since 1966, came seven months after Obama made a historic trip to the country last fall, visiting both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a gesture aimed at showing the administration’s support for the Myanmar government’s reform efforts, Obama departed from official State Department policy and referred repeatedly to the country as “Myanmar.”
Administration officials said the president was offering “diplomatic courtesy” that reflects some of the “positive reforms” the ruling regime has pursued.
“While we are not changing our policy to officially adopt ‘Myanmar,’ we believe that showing respect for a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform, a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda, is an important signal of support for its efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The matter is contentious. Burma is the colonial, English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one that has long been used by the political opposition. A year after brutally crushing prodemocracy demonstrations, the ruling junta changed the name of the country from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.
The United States had long been sympathetic to the opposition, led by Suu Kyi, who had continued using Burma during years of confinement in her lakeside villa. She was released in 2010 and welcomed Obama to her home last November, pledging to work with the ruling party on reforms.
Human-rights groups have criticized the Obama administration for moving too quickly to reward Myanmar’s ruling party for reforms that, they contend, have not taken root. Human Rights Watch, a leading advocacy group, criticized a recent release of political prisoners ahead of Thein Sein’s visit to the United States as a public relations ploy.
“Burma’s government still appears to be using political prisoner releases as a public relations tool, rather than to bring an end to politically motivated imprisonment,” John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director, said before the presidents met.
For his part, Thein Sein, speaking through an interpreter, said he was pleased that relations between the two nations have improved. He acknowledged that more progress needs to be made but added: “Our democratic government is just two years old.”