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Obama welcomes Myanmar’s progress during leader’s visit

Activists decry invitation to former general

WASHINGTON — In a long-awaited White House visit, President Obama on Monday told Myanmar’s president that he appreciates the Asian leader’s efforts to lead the country in ‘‘a long and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct, path to follow’’ toward democracy.

Obama spoke as he sat in the Oval Office with former general Thein Sein, who became the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. Activists object to the invitation because of concerns over human rights in the country, but it marks a turnaround in international acceptance for Myanmar after decades of isolation and direct military rule.

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Obama credited Thein Sein’s leadership in political and economic reform in bringing about an end to significant tensions between their countries.

‘‘As I indicated to President Sein, countries that are successful are countries that tap into the talents of all people and respect the rights of all people,’’ Obama said. ‘‘And I'm confident that if Myanmar follows that recipe, that it will be not only a successful democracy but a thriving economy.’’

Obama cited Myanmar’s release of political prisoners, credible elections, more inclusiveness, and efforts to resolve ethnic conflicts. He said the two discussed institutionalizing reforms.

The Myanmar leader has led the shift from decades of direct military rule but has stalled on some reform commitments and failed to stop bloody outbursts of ethnic violence.

Obama raised the issue of continuing violence against Muslim communities.

‘‘The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them, needs to stop,’’ Obama said.

Thein Sein previously served in a repressive junta, and his meetings at the White House and Congress would have been all-but-impossible before he took the helm of a nominally civilian government in 2011. His name was deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the United States only in September.

He arrived in Washington Saturday, six months after Obama made history with an unprecedented US presidential visit to the country also known as Burma.

The administration’s outreach to Myanmar’s generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens and reduce dependence on China.

Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Thein Sein plans to address American businessmen keen to capitalize on the opening of one of Asia’s few untapped markets.

It was the first White House visit by a Burmese leader since a 1966 meeting with Ne Win, an independence hero-turned dictator, who began the nation’s descent from regional rice bowl to economic basket case.

The United States last month announced it is considering duty-free access for Myanmar to US markets.

Although Thein Sein was accorded the protocol due to a foreign president, his Washington paled next to that granted last September to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who met Obama and was presented by Congress with the highest civilian award it can bestow.

Human rights activists said the invitation to Thein Sein sends the wrong message and wastes leverage to press for further change. Outside the White House, about 30 activists protested corruption in the Myanmar government.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.
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