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Will assist Myanmar on path to democracy’: Obama

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A group of Muslim protesters demonstrate against Myanmar President Thein Sein's visit in the U.S. outside the White House on Monday.— Photo: AFP
A group of Muslim protesters demonstrate against Myanmar President Thein Sein's visit in the U.S. outside the White House on Monday.— Photo: AFP

: In a long-awaited White House visit, President Barack Obama told Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on Monday that he appreciates the Asian leader’s efforts to lead the country in “a long and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct, path to follow” towards democracy.

He spoke as he sat in the Oval Office with former General Mr. Thein Sein, the first President of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. Mr. Obama credited President Thein Sein’s leadership — political and economic reforms undertaken — in bringing about an end to U.S.-Myanmar tensions.

Mr. Thein Sein previously served in a repressive junta, and his name was only deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the U.S. last September.

Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Mr. Thein Sein was to address American businessmen keen to capitalise on the opening of one of Asia’s few untapped markets.

Sitting next to Mr. Obama in the Oval Office and speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Thein Sein said he was grateful for the invitation to discuss reforms and said Myanmar still has democratic processes to learn and significant challenges. “It is a daunting task ahead of us,” he said, noting in particular the widespread poverty in the country.

“We will need the assistance and understanding of the international community, including the United States,” Thein Sein said.

In his Oval Office appearance, Mr. Obama repeatedly referred to the nation as Myanmar, instead of Burma. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as “a diplomatic courtesy” to show respect for the ambitious reforms the country is pursuing.

Mr. Obama cited the release of political prisoners and their incorporation in the political process, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, credible elections. He also mentioned the legislature’s increasing inclusivity and efforts to resolve long-standing ethnic conflicts and establish laws that respect rights.

Targeting of Muslims

Mr. Obama said he expressed concern about violence against Muslims in the country. “The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop,” Mr. Obama said.

“We very much appreciate your efforts in leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction and we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you in what I know is a long and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow,” Mr. Obama said.

It was the first visit by a Myanmar leader since a September 1966 visit by Ne Win, an independence hero-turned dictator, who began the nation’s descent from regional rice bowl to economic basket case. Thein Sein visited New York last September for the U.N. General Assembly but didn’t come to Washington.

Thein Sein’s welcome paled next to that granted last September to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who met Mr. Obama and was presented by Congress with the highest civilian award it can bestow.

The U.S. State Department on Monday again designated Myanmar as a country of special concern for its severe violations of religious freedom, as it has since 1999 in an annual global assessment. It said the government promoted Buddhism, practiced by the majority, over minority faiths that include Islam. — AP

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