WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged the president of Myanmar on Monday to halt violence against a Muslim minority but praised economic and political reforms in the formerly pariah nation that is emerging as a U.S. ally in China’s backyard.
During the first visit to the White House in 47 years by a leader of the Southeast Asian nation, Obama called for an end to the killings of Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Reformist Myanmar President Thein Sein vowed to resolve ethnic conflicts and bring perpetrators to justice.
“I also shared with President Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop,” Obama said.
At least 192 people died last year in violence between Buddhists in Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship by Myanmar. Most of the victims, and the 140,000 people made homeless in the attacks, were Muslims.
As the Myanmar government eases repression, long-simmering ethnic tensions are on the boil - a dynamic that resembles what happened when multi-ethnic Yugoslavia fractured in the 1990s after communism fell.
Thein Sein appealed for U.S. “assistance and understanding” as Myanmar attempts difficult reforms.
Obama said the Myanmar leader had assured him that he intends to release more political prisoners and institutionalize political reforms that have already begun transforming the country and ending its estrangement from the West.
Rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers fear Obama has moved too quickly since forging a dramatic breakthrough in relations in 2011 after a half century of military rule in Myanmar.
U.S. officials argue that reforms by Myanmar - freeing democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners, scrapping censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests - are transformative and deserve support from Obama, who confirmed the end of Myanmar’s pariah status with the West with a landmark visit last November.
“What has allowed this shift in relations is the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform,” Obama said in the Oval Office.
Even critics in Congress of Obama’s Myanmar policy support the U.S. strategic goal of bringing Myanmar, tucked between China and India, out of its isolation from the West.
The long U.S.-Myanmar estrangement was a drag on America’s relations with ASEAN, the 10-nation Southeast Asian regional grouping that looks to Washington as a counterbalance to the more assertive China of recent years.
In a speech after the White House meeting, Thein Sein described efforts to develop Southeast Asia’s poorest economy, overhaul decrepit institutions, undo the habits of decades of authoritarian rule and build a new, inclusive national identity from dozens of ethnic groups, some of which have been at war for decades.
“To achieve all this we need maximum international support, including from the United States, to train and educate, share knowledge, trade and invest, and encourage others to do the same,” he told an audience at a Washington university.
He referred to the Muslim killings and said his government “must ensure not only that inter-communal violence is brought to a halt, but that all the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Thein Sein, a retired general, was taken off the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals visa blacklist last year to facilitate engagement.
The slight, soft-spoken leader was a close confidante of former military ruler Than Shwe, who ran Myanmar for 19 years, a period that saw mass jailing of opponents, the gunning down of pro-democracy protesters and widespread abuses in ethnic minority areas.
Successive U.S. governments have refused to acknowledge the country’s change of name from Burma to Myanmar made in the late 1980s by the country’s military rulers.
The United States for years deliberately referred to the nation of 60 million people as Burma, so as not to give legitimacy to military governments.
But in a nod to political reforms, the White House acknowledged it is now employing the name Myanmar more often than before.
“We have responded by expanding our engagement with the government, easing a number of sanctions, and as a courtesy in appropriate settings, more frequently using the name Myanmar,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
In a new U.S. measure to support reform, the United States and Myanmar on Tuesday will sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement on boosting trade, labor standards and investment, the United States trade representative said.
U.S. business leaders support lifting sanctions more quickly to facilitate access to an undeveloped consumer market in a country rich in oil, natural gas, minerals and timber. Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia have few or no Myanmar sanctions.
“The immediate tasks at hand ... are to remove the remaining U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar, and to extend duty-free treatment in the United States for the imports of Myanmar,” said Bart Fisher, chairman of the new Myanmar-U.S. Trade Council.
Reporting by Paul Eckert; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Beech