Myanmar's President Thein Sein arrives at the West Wing of the White House for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, May 20, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday became the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century, as Washington offers a strong symbolic gesture to back his reforms.
In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the former general entered the White House and into talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office as a small crowd of protesters converged outside.
Critics say Obama's invitation was premature and takes pressure off Myanmar to address abuses such as recent anti-Muslim violence to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.
Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.
Speaking at the office of Voice of America on Sunday, Thein Sein said he would tell Obama that the reform path is stable but that Myanmar needed economic development -- including a complete end to US sanctions.
The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections -- testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power, potentially to Suu Kyi.
In an interview with the Washington Post published Monday, Thein Sein would not take a position on whether the Nobel laureate would be allowed to stand -- saying the future direction of reform was up to parliament.
But he is also not budging on the constitution's allocation of 25 percent of seats in parliament to the armed forces, saying that the military preserved Myanmar's independence.
Thein Sein told the Post that the armed forces would "always have a special place" in government and life in Myanmar.
The army seized control of the country then known as Burma in 1962, ushering in decades of isolation. Military ruler Ne Win in 1966 was the last leader to visit the White House, where he met president Lyndon Johnson.
Obama has made Myanmar a key priority and visited in November. To some, Myanmar represents the biggest success from his pledge in his 2009 inaugural address to reach out to US foes if they "unclench" their fists.
Many experts believe that a key motivating factor for Myanmar's reforms was to ease its reliance on neighboring China, which developed an overwhelming influence in the proudly independent country amid US and European sanctions.
In recent weeks, the United States ended sweeping restrictions on visas, and top trade official Demetrios Marantis visited Myanmar to start discussions on economic measures such as offering duty-free access for certain products.
But in a signal ahead of Thein Sein's visit, Representative Joe Crowley, who has long been active on Myanmar, introduced legislation to extend for one year a ban on the country's gems -- a key money-maker for the military.
Crowley, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from New York, said he was "very concerned" about human rights violations in Myanmar, including "brutal attacks" in recent months against the Muslim minority.
A recent Human Rights Watch report accused Myanmar of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority who are not even considered citizens of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
The US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group that plans protests against Thein Sein, said the United States should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Myanmar as a condition to stop abuse of the Rohingya.
"President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's executive director.
Thein Sein told the Post that allegations the Myanmar army is culpable in or condones crackdowns against the Muslim minority were a "pure fabrication."
He said the army was "more disciplined than normal citizens, because they have to abide by military rules."