U.S. President Barack Obama praised Burma's president on Monday for his leadership in pushing through political reforms, while warning that ethnic and communal violence targeting minority Muslims in Burma must stop.
Mr. Obama spoke Monday at the White House, alongside Burmese President Thein Sein, the former general who in 2011 became president after Burma's first democratic polls in more than five decades.
The U.S. leader credited his counterpart for using his time in office to reduce tensions with Washington, and said Mr. Thein Sein had made "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 said he was grateful for the invitation to the White House and 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.
Activists have protested the Thein Sein visit, citing ongoing civil strife in Burma, and 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.
In a town hall meeting Sunday at the Voice of America, the Burmese leader said the communal violence against Muslims in western Burma was 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 ethnic 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 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 concerns.