Myanmar Visit to U.S. Marks Shift in Politics (click to view article)


President Barack Obama struck a balance after meeting Myanmar President Thein Sein in Washington on Monday, praising political progress in the long-isolated Asian nation, while calling for more.
 
In the first state visit of a Myanmar leader to the U.S. capital in nearly 47 years, Messrs. Thein Sein and Obama offered tempered optimism, underscoring the work that remains in a country still emerging from decades of repressive military rule.
 
Mr. Obama, who last year became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, lauded the release of political prisoners, the completion of credible elections and Mr. Thein Sein's efforts to resolve ethnic conflicts.
 
"As a consequence of these changes in policy inside of Myanmar, the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar, and many countries around the world have followed suit," Mr. Obama said. "But as President Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done."
 
Mr. Obama urged Mr. Thein Sein to continue the release of political prisoners, institutionalize political reforms and stop communal violence directed at Muslim communities in Myanmar.
 
Monday's meeting at the White House was a fresh marker of the pace of change in the country, also known as Burma. Just three years ago, Mr. Thein Sein was one of the top generals in a military regime feared for its brutality. He was elected president in 2011; it wasn't until September 2012 that his name was removed from a blacklist barring travel to the U.S.
 
Myanmar has undertaken numerous political and economic overhauls since the country's generals handed power to Mr. Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed and a stifling censorship regime ended. Privately owned daily newspapers now compete for space on the sidewalks of the country's cities—a sight unimaginable a few years ago.
 
Foreign investors are showing a strong interest in the country's economic potential, not only for its natural resources but also for its consumer base of 60 million people. Last month, the U.S. said it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar-made products to U.S. markets after earlier removing nearly all the economic sanctions it placed on the previous military government.
 
Mr. Thein Sein said that challenges remain, such as the high rate of poverty in his country. He also noted that its democratic government is only two years old.
 
While the last couple of years have yielded progress, the U.S.-Myanmar relationship remains complicated. Even the country's name is an issue, as White House press secretary Jay Carney explained: U.S. policy is to call it Burma, but the U.S. government has begun to allow limited use of Myanmar as a diplomatic courtesy.
 
Some activist groups, including the U.S. Campaign for Burma, worry that Washington is offering too much carrot and not applying enough stick.
 
They note that some old problems persist while new ones are cropping up. A war with ethnic-Kachin guerrillas in the northwestern region of the country continues despite the central governments' cease-fire agreements with other minority groups.
 
U.S. Reps. Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.) and Peter King (R., N.Y.) recently introduced legislation to extend a ban on gem imports from Myanmar that is scheduled to expire in July. Many of the country's gems, especially jade and rubies, come from the contested areas in Kachin State.
 
Greater political freedoms are also igniting age-old religious and ethnic animosities. Over 180 people were killed in clashes between ethnic-Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in western Myanmar last year, while this year 43 people have been killed in rioting between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar, where a distinctly militant, nationalist form of Buddhism is now taking root, analysts say.