Burmese President Thein Sein opened a visit to Washington Sunday, joining a town hall meeting at the Voice of America to answer questions on human rights, economic development and foreign investment in his country.
He told a group of about 30 Burmese living in the United States that the development of democracy in his homeland must go hand in hand with economic development and that economic growth must come first.
Ahead of Monday's White House meeting with President Barack Obama, President Thein Sein described ethnic violence against minority Muslims in western Burma as criminal behavior as opposed to civil strife. He acknowledged some "heavy-handed" actions by police in their efforts to control political dissent in his country, and said both protesters and police must come to understand their responsibilities as democracy takes hold.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch accused Burmese authorities of practicing ethnic cleansing against minority Rohingya Muslims, most of whom are denied Burmese citizenship and other basic rights. The New York-based group also accused the military of failing to stop the violence, and in some cases participating. Burmese authorities have repeatedly disputed those claims.
A small group of protesters gathered outside VOA Sunday calling for minority rights in Burma.
Washington has been re-engaging the Burmese government since Burma's long-ruling military junta stepped aside in late 2010 and permitted democratic elections the following year.
Thein Sein is the first Burmese leader to visit Washington in 47 years. His visit comes six months after President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asia nation.