U.S. President Barack Obama praised Burma's president on Monday for his leadership in pushing through political reforms, but warned that ethnic and communal violence targeting minority Muslims in that country must stop.
Mr. Obama spoke at the White House alongside Burmese President Thein Sein, the former general who in 2011 became president after Burma's first democratic election in more than five decades.
"We very much appreciate your efforts and 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 on what I know is a long and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow."
The U.S. leader thanked his counterpart for helping to reduce tensions between the two nations, and praised what he called Thein Sein's "genuine efforts" to end decades of ethnic warfare that has blocked Burmese unity. He said the Burmese president laid out plans for the release of more political prisoners jailed under decades of military rule.
President Thein Sein acknowledged his country still faces significant challenges as it moves to institute more democratic reforms. He called the the path forward a "daunting task" made more difficult by widespread poverty in his homeland.
"We are trying our best with our own efforts to have political and economic reforms in our country. But we will also need the assistance and understanding from the international community, including the United States."
Activists have protested the Thein Sein visit, citing ongoing civil strife in Burma. Outside the White House Monday, protesters carried signs demanding an end to ethnic violence targeting Burma's Muslims.
Throughout Monday's statements, President Obama repeatedly referred to the Southeast Asian nation as Myanmar, the name adopted by the military that controlled the country's political life for decades. The White House said its use of Myanmar, rather than its normal reference to Burma, was a limited courtesy aimed at acknowledging Mr. Thein Sein's progress with political and economic reforms since taking office.
At a town hall meeting Sunday at the Voice of America, the Burmese leader said the communal violence against Muslims in western Burma is criminal activity, and not civil strife. He also acknowledged what he called "heavy handed" actions by some police in their efforts to control political dissent in his country, and said both protesters and police must understand their responsibilities as democracy takes hold.
Human rights groups have accused Mr. Obama of sending the wrong message to Burma by scheduling the Thein Sein visit. They say the invitation reduces pressure on the Burmese leader to release political dissidents and stop violence against ethnic minorities.
On Monday, the U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights released a report accusing Burmese authorities of standing by in March while militants attacked an Islamic boarding school in the central town of Meiktila. The group said attackers killed at least 20 children and four teachers.
Burmese authorities have repeatedly disputed accusations by rights groups that security forces ignore or participate in the violence.
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 and other concerns.
The U.S. already has suspended most of its economic sanctions on Burma, as part of an effort meant to encourage further reforms. U.S. officials say the two countries on Tuesday will sign an agreement on boosting trade, labor standards and investment.
At a glamorous dinner sponsored by several major U.S. corporations Monday in Washington, President Thein Sein welcomed further American investment in his country, saying he hopes to build the foundation for a "robust middle class."