Foreign Policy Blogs

President Thein Sein of Myanmar Comes to Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar President Thein Sein in the Oval Office May 20, 2013. Image: Reuters

President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar President Thein Sein in the Oval Office May 20, 2013. Image: Reuters

President U Thein Sein of Myanmar visited Washington, D.C. last week and met with President Barack Obama in what was billed by many in the media as “an historic event,” taking into account that President Sein is the first president of Myanmar—also known as Burma—to come to the United States in almost fifty years. US-Myanmar relations continue to develop and while the outcome of Myanmar’s democratic and economic transition is far from certain, clearly the Obama administration is continuing to extend an open hand to the Sein government, a policy that has been endorsed by Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In joint remarks after their meeting, President Obama acknowledged President Sein for his “efforts and leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction, and we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow.” President Obama also recognized that there are many uncertainties and potential pitfalls ahead and he expressed “deep concern” over ongoing ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar, in particular concerning the Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine state which has claimed hundreds of lives and forced thousands to flee their homes.

President Sein stressed in his comments that Myanmar’s transition only began two years ago, and still has a long way to go. He explained that “for democracy to flourish in our country, we will have to move forward and we will have to undertake reforms — political reforms and economic reforms in the years ahead.  We will also have to — we are trying our best with our own efforts to have political and economic reforms in our country.  But we will also need — along this path, we will also need the assistance and understanding from the international community, including the United States.”

A fact sheet released by the  U.S. Department of State lists U.S. assistance to Myanmar which include electoral assistance in preparation for elections in 2015,  the Fulbright Foreign Student Scholarship Program, plans for a Peace Corps program in Myanmar, the Higher Education Partnerships initiative—plans are underway for Johns Hopkins University to reopen its Yangon campus—and a joint statement on Good Governance and Transparency in the Energy Sector. The United States also signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with Myanmar last week and President Sein attended a gala dinner hosted by the and US-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

Looking ahead, Myanmar is going to remain in the headlines and on the foreign policy agenda of the United States. For other countries as well, Myanmar is also a priority. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just visited that country and written off almost $2 billion in loan forgiveness along with a new aid and economic assistance deal. Next year Myanmar will be chair of ASEAN, and no doubt will require institutional support in fulfillment of this role. In 2015, there is a scheduled general election which at this moment in time An Sang Suu Kyi is prevented from partaking in. In order for her to be a candidate there will have to a change made to the constitution, a function that is under the purview of the parliament—of which An Sang Suu Kyi is an elected member—and not of President Sein. The people of Myanmar still have a long journey in front of them, and peaceful redress for ethnic and religious minorities have to be included in the process. President Sein’s visit was another step in that journey, and it is very clear that the United States has every intention of staying engaged provided that reforms are genuine and are moving towards a freer and more democratic society for Myanmar and for all people within its borders.



Damien Tomkins

Damien Tomkins works at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C. on matters pertaining to the Asia-Pacific region. After traveling overland from Cape Town to Cairo in the 1990s he received a BA First Class Honours from the University of Wales in Anthropology and Religious Studies. He then lived and worked in China for two years teaching English with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). He subsequently received his MA degree in Asian international affairs from the School of International Service, American University. He enjoys working and learning about Asia and would like to further develop his career within the field of promoting a closer US-China relationship supported by mutual understanding and respect. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which he is affiliated. Follow on Twitter: @tomkinsd