President Obama meets with Myanmar President Thein Sein in the Oval Office. (Pool Photo / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- President Obama welcomed Myanmar President Thein Sein to the White House on Monday with tokens of encouragement as the former military ruler pushes democratic reforms in the once-authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Obama praised Thein Sein and his government for easing media restrictions, holding elections and releasing some political prisoners.
“As a consequence of these changes in policy inside of Myanmar, the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar, and many countries around the world have followed suit,” Obama said in brief remarks after the two leaders met in the Oval Office.
The president’s praise was notable because he repeatedly referred to “Myanmar,” bucking U.S. policy that the country be called Burma, its name before the military regime changed it in 1989.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s language was a “diplomatic courtesy.”
“While we are not changing our policy to officially adopt 'Myanmar,' we believe that showing respect for a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform program and a government that is pursuing that agenda is an important signal of support for its efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed,” Carney said.
Obama visited Myanmar in November, the first sitting president ever to do so. He met with both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and political dissident who now serves in the nation’s parliament. With his visit Monday, Thein Sein became his country’s first leader to visit Washington since 1966.
The warmer relations have drawn criticism from human rights advocates who say hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed in Myanmar and that ethnic violence persists. Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between the Buddhist majority and Rohingya Muslims in what Human Rights Watch has called a "campaign of 'ethnic cleansing.' ”
Obama said he was concerned about the conflict.
“The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop,” he said. “And we are prepared to work in any ways that we can with both the government of Myanmar and the international community to assure that people are getting the help that they need, but more importantly, that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Thein Sein acknowledged challenges to Myanmar’s development and he described his meeting with Obama as “candid and frank.”
“For democracy to flourish, we will have to undertake more economic and political reforms in the years ahead,” he said. “And we will need the assistance and understanding of the international community, including the U.S."
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