05/21/2013, 00.00
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As Obama welcomes Myanmar president, praises his reforms, human rights activists criticise him

Thein Sein makes an historic visit to the United States, the first Burmese head of state in 50 years to step on the White House lawn. The US president praised his "genuine efforts", but at the same time calls for the protection of minorities, particularly the Rohingya. His Myanmar counterpart says he is committed a "new national identity" that does not distinguish between ethnic and religious groups.

Washington (AsiaNews/Agencies) - In yesterday's historic meeting, US President Barack Obama expressed his support to Myanmar President Thein Sein in his drive to reform his country. However, the US leader also called for further steps in the field of human rights, starting with the wave of violence against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority. Despite this, critics staged protests and demonstrations against the US administration outside the White House during Sein's visit.

"President Thein Sein has not taken any recent steps to investigate allegations of government-perpetrated violence, revise laws that condone human rights abuses, or hold anyone accountable for gross violations of international law," US Campaign for Burma, one of the many groups protesting, said in a statement.

Republicans in Congress also attacked the president, accusing him of moving too quickly on normalisation with Burma, saying "the jury is still out" on reform.

Still, President Thein Sein's Washington visit is an historic event, a vote of confidence in his government's reforms, which the US rewarded by suspending most economic and trade sanctions.

This is the first meeting of its kind in the US in nearly 50 years. The last visit by a Burmese leader to the White House was in September 1966 by Ne Win, an independence hero-turned-dictator.

In his address, Obama spoke about the country's democratisation, referring to it as 'Myanmar', the name adopted by the military junta that ruled until 2011, in lieu of 'Burma', the traditional term used hitherto by the US administration.

A White House spokesman said the US government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as "a diplomatic courtesy" to show respect for the country's ambitious reforms.

The US president acknowledged Thein Sein's "genuine efforts" to solve Myanmar's ethnic conflicts, but also expressed "deep concern" over the plight of Rohingya Muslim minority.

For his part, Thein Sein said that he was committed to reforms and, in a speech shortly afterward, said he wanted to build a "more inclusive national identity."

"Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths-Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others-must feel part of this new national identity," he said. However, he stopped short of directly mentioning the Rohingya.

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