Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In a long-awaited White House visit, President Barack Obama on Monday told Myanmar's president that he appreciates the Asian leader's efforts to lead the country in "a long and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct, path to follow" toward democracy.
Obama spoke as he sat in the Oval Office with former general Thein Sein, who became the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. Activists object to the invitation because of concerns over human rights in the country, but it marks a turnaround in international acceptance for Myanmar after decades of isolation and direct military rule.
Obama credited Thein Sein's leadership in political and economic reform in bringing about an end to significant tensions between their two countries.
"As I indicated to President Sein, countries that are success are countries that tap into the talents of all people and respect the rights of all people," Obama said. "And I'm confident that if Myanmar follows that recipe, that it will be not only a successful democracy but a thriving economy."
Thein Sein previously served in a repressive junta, and his meetings at the White House and Congress would have been all-but-impossible before he took the helm of a nominally civilian government in 2011. His name was only deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the U.S. last September.
He arrived in Washington Saturday, six months after Obama made history with an unprecedented U.S. presidential visit to the country also known as Burma. The administration's outreach to Myanmar's generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens and reduce dependence on China.
Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Thein Sein will be addressing American businessmen keen to capitalize on the opening of one of Asia's few untapped markets.
Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office and speaking through an interpreter, Thein Sein said he was grateful for the invitation to discuss reforms and said Myanmar still has democratic processes to learn and significant challenges. "It is a daunting task ahead of us," he said, noting in particular the widespread poverty in the country.
"We will need the assistance and understanding of the international community, including the United States," Thein Sein said.
In his Oval Office appearance, Obama repeatedly referred to the nation as Myanmar, a departure from the common U.S. government reference to the country as Burma. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as "a diplomatic courtesy" to show respect for the ambitious reforms the country is pursuing.
Obama cited the release of political prisoners and their incorporation in the political process, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, credible elections. He also mentioned the legislature's increasing inclusivity and efforts to resolve long-standing ethnic conflicts and establish laws that respect rights.
"As President Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done," Obama said. He said they discussed Sein's intention to release more political prisoners, institutionalize political reform and rule of law so it endures and work to end ethnic conflict.
Obama said he expressed concern about violence against Muslims in the country. "The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop," Obama said.
"We very much appreciate your efforts in 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 in what I know is a long and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow," Obama said.
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