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Burmese President's White House Visit a Reward for Reforms

Burmese President Thein Sein visits the White House on Monday, becoming the first leader of his nation to do so in nearly half a century.

President Barack Obama's invitation to his Burmese counterpart to meet at the White House marks a rapid diplomatic boost for Thein Sein, whom the United States removed from a blacklist of foreign officials denied entry to the country only last year. Mr. Obama also rewarded Burma's reform efforts by making the first visit to that nation by a sitting U.S. president last November.

The White House says Mr. Obama is committed to supporting countries such as Burma that make a decision to "embrace reform."

But, rights groups accuse Mr. Obama of sending the wrong message to Burma. They say Mr. Thein Sein's White House invitation reduces pressure on him to release political dissidents and stop alleged rights abuses against Burma's ethnic minorities.

Some U.S. lawmakers also have said they will try to slow the process of lifting U.S. sanctions on Burma to keep the pressure on Mr. Thein Sein to address those concerns.



Some analysts say the Obama administration wants to help Mr. Thein Sein to overcome resistance within the Burmese military toward further democratic change. They say the U.S. embrace of Burma also is part of a strategy to boost ties with Southeast Asian nations as a counterweight to China's growing regional power.

The White House said Mr. Obama and Mr. Thein Sein will discuss "many remaining challenges to efforts to develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions, and bring economic opportunity" to the Burmese people.

President Thein Sein addressed some of those issues at a town hall meeting at the Voice of America on Sunday.

He said ethnic violence against minority Muslims in western Burma is criminal behavior, not civil strife. He also 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.

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.

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 a long-ruling military junta stepped aside in late 2010 and permitted democratic elections the following year.

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