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Obama, Burmese President Discuss Way Forward for Reforms

In White House Talks, Burma's President Pledges Further Reforms
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In White House Talks, Burma's President Pledges Further Reforms

At the White House, President Barack Obama and Burma's President, Thein Sein, discussed political and economic reforms in Burma, human rights and the importance of resolving the country's ethnic conflicts and religious tensions.

It was the first White House visit by a Burmese president since 1966 and came as Obama closely monitors the outcomes of an engagement process he began with Burma in 2009, months after his election.

Most U.S. economic sanctions against Burma have been lifted or relaxed. Obama made a historic visit to Burma last November.

Burmese president Thien Sein hosted a town hall meeting at VOA in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. (Alison Klein/VOA)
Burmese president Thien Sein hosted a town hall meeting at VOA in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. (Alison Klein/VOA)
Obama said the shift in relations was made possible by President Thein Sein's leadership in moving down a path of political and economic reform.

He said Thein Sein shared his plans for what comes next on "a long journey" with much work to be done.

"The manner in which he intends to continue to move forward on releasing more political prisoners, making sure that the government of Myanmar institutionalizes some of the political reforms that have already taken place, how rule of law is codified so that it continues into the future and the process whereby these ethnic conflicts that have existed are resolved, not simply by a ceasefire, but an actual incorporation of all these communities into the political process," Obama said.

President Thein Sein referred to past "difficulties" in relations. Burma, he said, is in an early stage of democracy with much to learn, is determined to move forward, and needs help.

"For democracy to flourish in our country we will have to move forward and we will have to undertake reforms, political reforms and economic reforms in the years ahead. We are trying our best with our own efforts to have political and economic reforms in our country but along this path we will also need assistance and understanding from the international community, including the United States," Sein said.

The Burmese leader said the discussions covered the rule of law, strengthening of the judiciary system, economic problems and the need to assist Burma's military and police in becoming professional forces.

President Obama urged President Thein Sein to take stronger action to halt violence directed against Muslims in western Burma.

"I also shared with President Thein Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside of Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed against them, needs to stop and we are prepared to work in any ways that we can with both the Government of Myanmar and the international community to ensure that people are getting the help that they need, but more importantly that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term," Obama said.

Outside the White House, demonstrators protested what they called genocide against Muslims in Burma's Rakhine State, and for an end to government military campaigns against the Kachin people.

Soe Kyi Tha, who has lived in the United States for more than two decades, said the Burmese government needs to halt all violence directed against Rohingyas.

"They have to promise that all citizens of Burma are under the law, they cannot just protect the Buddhists in every possible way and neglect all the ethnic minorities, which includes Christian minorities also," Tha said.

Alex Oo represents the Burmese Muslim Civil Rights Association.

"They [the Burmese government] are not doing their job, especially Thein Sein, he is the president. His responsibility is to take care of the whole country, no matter Kachin, Karen, Shan, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist," Oo said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained a change in which Obama administration statements have begun using Myanmar to describe Burma.

Carney said the U.S. government has allowed "limited use" of the description as a signal to encourage reforms by the Thein Sein government.

"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 program and a government that is pursuing that agenda is an important signal for it efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed, but our policy remains that Burma is the name of the country," Carney said.

In another appearance later Monday, Thein Sein said his government is working to peacefully end armed conflicts, end Burma's isolation, and achieve the removal of all sanctions.

He said Burma faces tremendous challenges in moving toward being a state that is first and foremost a servant of the people, no easy task, he said, after decades of authoritarian rule.