Former general Thein Sein became the first Burmese president to visit the White House in almost 50 years on Monday – a visit human rights groups protested was premature, citing alleged ethnic cleansing and civil rights abuses.
Barack Obama, talking to the press alongside Thein Sein, acknowledged the human rights abuses but also praised him for the progress he had made towards democracy in the last two years. In a symbolic moment, Obama became the first US president to talk about Myanmar rather than Burma. The US has long resisted the change, in part because of pressure from opposition groups and human rights organisations who said Myanmar was a name used by the military junta and was not inclusive of all the country’s ethnic groupings, unlike Burma.
Earlier, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, anticipating the use of Myanmar, said it was not a change in policy by the US, which continued to view the name of the country as Burma, and there were no plans to officially adopt Myanmar. But there were times when its use as a courtesy was appropriate in certain settings, Carney said.
The visit underlines the extent to which Burma’s status has changed. Two years ago it was still viewed as an international pariah, run by a military junta. Since then, there has been a partial transfer to civilian rule, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to enter parliament and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Obama, anxious to encourage reform and trade, visited Burma in November. It has been one of his few foreign policy successes, courting the country and shifting it away from China’s sphere of influence. more…