Myanmar president makes historic visit to US

Originally published on ILLUME in May 2013

For the first time in half a century a leader from the quasi-military Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was invited to visit Washington to engage in talks with President Obama.

Myanmar President Thein Sein is breaking years of international and diplomatic isolation with the U.S. as the White House hosts the former general on Monday — a symbolic gesture from Washington in support of Thein Sein’s new reforms.

A small crowd of protestors and critics gathered outside the White House today to protest Obama’s hospitality towards Thein Sein, fearing the visit may take pressure off Myanmar to end ethnic and sectarian violence and slow the country’s already-stalled democratic reform.

This meeting marks six months since Obama made an unprecedented presidential visit to Myanmar in November last year that ended with a promise to transition the government from direct military rule to democracy and reduce the country’s dependence on China.

However, since his visit and easing of U.S. sanctions, ethnic violence in Myanmar has worsened. About 192 people died last year in violent conflicts between ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar. More than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been displaced or left homeless. According to the Human Rights Watch, security forces have stood aside as violence has continued and Thein Sein has taken no serious steps to hold those accountable for the violence.

Since 2001, the U.S. has received and resettled about 98,000 Burmese refugees with over 14,000 refugees alone in 2007 after the U.S. made a commitment to resettle displaced Burmese peoples. Refugees have resettled in over 130 cities, with the largest populations seen in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Utica, New York; Phoenix Arizona; and Forts Worth, Texas.

Much of the newly ushered reforms since Thein Sein took office in 2011 have been accredited to the improving relations with the U.S. and support from Obama including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, relieving censorship, and narrowing U.S. ban on business dealings with Myanmar officials and businessmen.

Throughout his visit, Thein Sein will be appealing to businessmen in the U.S. to capitalize on the country’s unexploited markets and resources to help fuel economic development that will ultimately aid Myanmar’s democratic progress and lessen its widespread poverty. The retired general plans to meet with the U.S-ASEAN Business Council and U.S. Chamber of Commerce to broaden U.S. investments in Myanmar.

In an announcement on Monday following the talks, Obama said Thein Sein plans to release more political prisoners and institutionalize democratic reforms in his country. Obama also expressed concerns during the meeting about violence against Muslims in Myanmar.

However, the ultimate test for these reforms will be demonstrated through the 2015 elections in Myanmar to see whether the military will be willing to cede power to a new leader.