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Obama visit a boost for Thein Sein's reforms

Trip sends signal to China; NLD vows to give honest account of country's progress; Critics say move comes too soon, citing ethnic strife, continued abuse of prisoners

Barack Obama will become the first serving US president to visit Myanmar when he lands in the country late next week on a mission seen as endorsing Nay Pyi Taw's political reforms while furthering Washington's strategy to counter Chinese influence in the country.

The Myanmar government welcomed the news of Obama's visit, saying it would ensure the support of Washington for the democratisation efforts of President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar.

"President Thein Sein can move forward his reform programmes with the support of President Obama and the US without backtracking. The government hopes bilateral relations and cooperation will significantly increase after this historic visit," said Myanmar President's Office director Zaw Htay.

Obama will meet Thein Sein and opposition leader and former political prisoner Suu Kyi as part of US efforts to encourage greater political freedom in the country.

Nyan Win, the spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, said Obama's visit would further the process of bringing about change in Myanmar, while cautioning that the country has not enjoyed genuine change yet. He said that only senior government leaders were engaged in the transition process, and that this situation would be raised with President Obama.

Suu Kyi would inform Obama of what was really happening, and discuss the investment situation in the country, he said.

The November 17-20 trip announced by the White House will also bring Obama to Thailand, and include a visit to Phnom Penh for the East Asia Summit.

Three former US presidents - Ulysses S Grant, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon - visited Myanmar, all of them after leaving office.

The visit is an important symbolic gesture indicating a gradual normalisation of relations, Johannes Lund, a Singapore-based analyst at Control Risks, said in an e-mail. "It gives further political support within Myanmar to Thein Sein in his reform efforts, as well as provides a signal to the US business community that the US is sincere in its commitment to Myanmar's reforms."

Warming ties

Thein Sein, who took office last year after his Union Solidarity and Development Party won the first general election in 20 years, quickly launched political and economic reforms that have led to a thaw in ties with the US, which imposed sanctions against the country's ruling military junta for decades.

The reforms brought an easing of US sanctions, permitting development assistance as well as some US investment in the country. Coca-Cola, Unilever and Visa Inc have already announced they will move into Myanmar.

US oil companies Conoco Phillips and Chevron Corp are scouting opportunities in Myanmar's oil and gas industry, which accounted for 77 per cent of the US$3.8 billion (Bt116.44 billion) in foreign investment the country attracted from 2005 to 2010. Natural gas exports increased to about $3 billion last year and are expected to rise in 2013 as more gas fields and pipelines become operational, according to the Asian Development Bank.

During its long period under international sanctions, Myanmar engaged with Beijing economically and politically to secure resources needed for development. China topped the list of foreign investors, while its political influence was obvious.

In his first term in office, Obama announced a shift in US foreign policy giving more weight to the Asia-Pacific region.

The reform process in Myanmar has not been completely smooth, as difficulties have arisen with the country's ethnic minorities. Fresh clashes in the western state of Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya erupted last month, claiming nearly 90 lives.

Critics say it is too soon for the US president to visit. According to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, Obama's move is premature because it rewards the Myanmar government at a time when abuses of political prisoners' human rights persist and violence continues in the western part of the country.

"His policy of engaging with governments that are hostile to the US, if you look around the world, there are not many places where it succeeded," Robertson told Bloomberg News, referring to Obama.

"The one place you can really see progress is [Myanmar]. In some ways there's a sense of vindication for that policy that's being played out."


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