WASHINGTON — In a long-awaited White House visit, President Barack Obama 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 remarks, Obama used "Myanmar" — the country name adopted by the junta in 1989. However, the U.S. will keep using "Burma" in official documents.
"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.
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.
It was the first by a Myanmar leader since a September 1966 visit by Ne Win, an independence hero-turned dictator, who began the nation's descent from regional rice bowl to economic basket case. Thein Sein visited New York last September for the U.N. General Assembly but didn't come to Washington.
The U.S. last month announced it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar to U.S. markets, and there could be progress Monday toward a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement.
Thein Sein's welcome paled next to that granted last September to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who met Obama and was presented by Congress with the highest civilian award it can bestow.
Human rights activists and Myanmar campaigners have sharply criticized the administration for inviting Thein Sein, arguing it sends the wrong message and wastes leverage to press for further democratic change. The administration says it is important to signal U.S. support for his reform agenda, likely still opposed by military hardliners.
Thein Sein told the Washington Post in an interview Sunday that the military "will always have a special place" in government.
The military governed Myanmar for five decades and retains a quarter of parliamentary seats, giving it an effective veto over constitutional amendments — including changes that would be required to allow Suu Kyi to run for the presidency in crucial 2015 elections.
Outside the White House on Monday, about 30 activists opposing Thein Sein's visit protested corruption in the government and treatment of ethnic Kachins in a northern region blighted by fighting between army and rebel forces. "We need real changes in Burma to stop the violations," said an organizer of the rally, Ye Htut of the International Foundation for Burma National Congress.
Ahead of Thein Sein's trip, Myanmar released at least 19 political prisoners in what has become a pattern for amnesties that coincide with high-profile international meetings as a way of highlighting the government's benevolent policies. Right groups say at least 160 political detainees are still held.
The government has permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its notorious prisons for the first time in seven years. But hasn't allowed adequate humanitarian access to conflict zones where tens of thousands have been displaced. Authorities have failed to stop, and may have abetted in some cases, an explosion in communal violence that has killed hundreds and led to segregation of Muslim communities.
The U.S. State Department on Monday again designated Myanmar as a country of special concern for its severe violations of religious freedom, as it has since 1999 in an annual global assessment. It said the government promoted Buddhism, practiced by the majority, over minority faiths that include Islam.
The department said there were credible allegations of the involvement of local border security authorities in the burning of villages during the communal violence in western Rakhine State, and of Muslims being arbitrarily detained since June, and reportedly denied food, water, and sleep. Some deaths in custody were reported, the department said.