WASHINGTON - President Obama lauded the progress made by Myanmar President Thein Sein’s government to open the political process, and said greater emphasis on human rights will bring the Southeast Asian country more prosperity.
Thein Sein’s White House visit Monday was the first of a leader from the country formerly known as Burma in 47 years and comes amid warming relations and U.S. support for its budding democracy after decades of military rule.
Obama said he wants to explore increasing U.S. trade with Myanmar, while adding “this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done.”
Speaking after the two leaders met at the White House, Obama said he expressed concern about violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and said such abuse of human rights “needs to stop.”
The meeting took place as Thein Sein, who took office two years ago, is clearing the way for overseas investment in Myanmar, which is sandwiched between China and India.
U.S. and European companies including Ford, Coca-Cola and Unilever are scouting for opportunities in Myanmar as western sanctions are lifted, and Sein’s government seeks to modernize the country’s financial system and infrastructure before elections in 2015.
“The U.S. has decided to rebalance its foreign policy toward Asia, and the idea behind that rebalancing is that the U.S. can benefit from Asia continuing to be a growth engine for the global economy,” said Vikram Nehru, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington who focuses on East Asia.
While human-rights organizations criticized Obama’s invitation as premature, the White House said in a statement that Obama was hosting the former military leader to signal support for “those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform.”
In Monday’s talks, the two leaders discussed the rule of law, proper use of courts and property rights of farmers, among other items, Thein Sein said.
“It is a daunting task ahead of us,” Thein Sein said of the changes toward democracy, while thanking the U.S. government and Obama for hastening changes.
The Myanmar leader said May 2 that development of democracy in his homeland must go hand in hand with economic development and that improved relations on a global scale will create jobs and provide the country with advanced technology.
During its decades of isolation, the country’s economy was dependent on China but the shift toward democracy offers “a little more a little more counterbalance,” said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“This gives them a little more leverage, they can look at other places for foreign investment, they can look at other places for aid and advice,” Hiebert said in a telephone interview.
Obama hailed Myanmar’s progress in democracy and human rights during a November visit that was the first by a U.S. president. His stop in Myanmar marked the end of U.S. diplomatic isolation as the country shifts to democracy from authoritarian rule.
The U.S. relaxed sanctions on Myanmar, which the U.S. still officially calls Burma, in 2012 after Sein engaged with political opponents, released dissidents and relaxed censorship following his party’s victory in a 2010 election that ended five decades of repression and direct military rule. The European Union lifted sanctions last month.
The former British colony is one of the world’s least-developed countries. Citizens average just four years of education.
Myanmar is also one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets. Even so, the nation’s economy will expand 6.2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said in October 2012.
Ford said April 30 it opened its first dealership in Myanmar after the U.S. eased sanctions last year. Companies such as Cisco Systems and Microsoft are already working with the U.S. and Burmese governments to help train local teachers and computer programmers.
The U.S. sees the shifting political climate in Myanmar as an opening for new investments, exports and relations as Obama looks to reassert power in a region increasingly reliant on China, the world’s second-largest economy.
Sein released at least 19 political prisoners, the Associated Press reported, before his White House visit.
Human rights advocates accused Sein of dragging his feet on promises for change and said many pledges haven’t been met, including a panel to review political prisoner cases.
“The last year has seen devastating violence against minorities and a stalled reform process,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement.
Obama must “make it clear that there are consequences if the Burmese government fails to implement its previous human rights pledges.”
Sifton said both governments should set goals for progress to ensure “free and fair parliamentary elections in 2015,” including a constitutional amendment removing Myanmar’s military authority over its civilian government.
With assistance from Siddharth Philip in Mumbai and Kyaw Thu in Bangkok