Myanmar′s president makes historic US visit | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 20.05.2013
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Myanmar's president makes historic US visit

On Monday, US President Barack Obama will receive the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in Washington. The visit itself represents a symbolic victory in several ways, but disagreements remain between the two countries.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein (c) NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar's President Thein Sein

No head of state from Myanmar has visited the United States since 1966, making Barack Obama's Monday meeting (20.05.2013) with President Thein Sein a symbolically charged encounter.

"For Thein Sein, it represents official recognition that had long been denied him," says Asia expert Gerhard Will from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin (SWP).

Washington's shifting view on the country is also reflected in its use of the term "President of Myanmar" in an official document. Until now, the US had refused to use the name "Myanmar," which was put in use over two decades ago by the country's military government, referring instead to the South East Asian nation by its old British colonial name, Burma.

Zeya Thu, deputy editor-in-chief of the private Burmese daily The Voice, views that as a clear sign of recognition - even if the US plans to use the word Myanmar only in certain contexts, as a spokesperson for the White House emphasized.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein Photo:Carolyn Kaster/AP/dapd

In November 2012, Barack Obama made a visit to Myanmar

Opening up

The US aims to extend not just a show of support for the country but also to encourage further steps in the reform process begun in Myanmar in 2010.

As a demonstration of goodwill, the Myanmar government released 23 political prisoners a few days ahead of the president's planned visit.

However, it's quite clear to Thein Sein that "on balance, things are looking much less radiant than they did a year or even half of a year ago," said the SWP's Gerhard Will. "The reform process has perhaps not ground to a halt, but it is subject to significant dangers."

In particular, those threats include the ongoing ethnic conflicts and religiously motivated violence in Myanmar. Fighting is taking place in the northern states of Kachin and Shan. And other regions also see regular scuffles between the Myanmar Army and countless opposition groups. Negotiations on a ceasefire have proven very difficult, says Tim Schröder of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative in Yangon.

Religiously motivated violence also remains a danger. Clashes between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority led to the deaths of 180 people and the displacement of more than 100,000 in 2012 alone.

Furthermore, there is growing unrest among the population, which has seen few benefits from reforms. Yangon-based photographer Thun Lynn told DW, "I am in favor of the opening process, but the only thing that has changed for me so far is that the rent for my apartment in the middle of Yangon has tripled."

Geostrategic interests

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the State Department Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/dapd

Opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi (left) also enjoyed a White House reception

Gerhard Will believes that the US also hopes to gain more influence in the region, increasingly dominated by China. "For the US, Myanmar is all about geostrategic interests in its rivalry with China."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is playing a growing role as a counterbalance to China, and the US seems to have caught on to that in recent years. In 2014, Myanmar will assume the rotating presidency of ASEAN.

The country's economy, however, is likely of less interest to the western superpower, given that it is simply not yet developed enough, Will noted. "However, there is enormous pressure coming from American businesses on the issue," he added.

Expectations from Myanmar

For the Burmese, on the other hand, economic issues play a decisive role. Just like opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited Europe and the US in 2012, President Thein Sein will try to encourage investment. But Zeya Thu of The Voice is certain that the US must first lift additional sanctions on Myanmar.

"At least some sections of society want sanctions to be lifted; at least, the business community and politicians," Zeya Thu said.

Expectations, at any rate, are running high among Burmese citizens as Thein Sein's trip gets underway.

"They think the US will support Myanmar in its reforms; for example, in the economic relationships or trade relationships and more support in the international community," the journalist explained. He also noted that, in the past, the US has been especially critical toward Myanmar's government. As such, he continued, many people there believe that "the White House is the ultimate indicator that the Myanmar government is walking down the right path."

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