Myanmar leader plans landmark US visit

WASHINGTON, USA - Myanmar's leader plans a landmark visit to Washington this month, a source said Thursday, May 2, as the United States eased visa restrictions in a sign of support despite a surge in anti-Muslim violence.

President Thein Sein, who would be the first leader of the country to visit in half a century, is planning to be in the American capital around May 20 or May 21, a staff member at the US Congress told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The trip would include a summit with President Barack Obama at the White House. Administration officials said they had no announcement to make but have previously said that they were studying a visit by Thein Sein.

In another step towards thawing relations, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday ended a 1996 ban on US visas to Myanmar nationals accused of hindering democracy during the country's decades of harsh military rule.

Separate restrictions remain on visas for nationals accused of human rights violations. A State Department official said the 1996 ban was overly broad by including government workers, officers and even some pensioners.

"Clearly many people in those categories are now contributing to the reform process and need to engage" through visits to the United States, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Suspended sanctions

Obama has suspended most sanctions, although he issued a declaration Thursday that keeps them on the books. The move allows the United States to reimpose restrictions in response to future setbacks, unlike the European Union, which recently terminated most measures entirely.

The US decisions recognize "the important changes the government of Burma has made and encourage and empower the government and the people of Burma to continue on the path of political and economic reform," the State Department official said.

The congressional source said the administration was considering starting to use the name Myanmar, the leaders' preferred usage, rather than Burma, as favored by exiled groups.

Washington is also reviewing whether Myanmar can enter an agreement that gives duty-free access for some 5,000 goods.

Obama paid his own visit to Myanmar in November, when he praised the nation for its transition but called for progress on reforms, particularly in the treatment of ethnic minorities.

But Thein Sein's visit is expected to be controversial due to a surge in violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim people who are not considered citizens by Myanmar.

A recent Human Rights Watch study accused Myanmar of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, saying that at least 211 have been killed since June 2012 and tens of thousands more forcibly displaced.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based pressure group, accused the Obama administration of only responding to positive developments and not to setbacks.

"To invite him at this point of time would really just reinforce the message of a positive relationship when there really has been no move by the US government to tie this to the Burmese government taking necessary steps" to curb the violence, she said.

The State Department official distanced the visa easing from the communal violence, saying that the United States had "profound concerns" but pointing to a statement by Thein Sein in support of religious freedom and tolerance.

"The military regime, for half a century, would respond to conflict with more violence and repression. This central government is trying to do things differently," the official said.

It would be the first visit to Washington by a head of the country since military leader Ne Win was invited in 1966 by president Lyndon Johnson.

Thein Sein has previously visited the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, but only held meetings in New York.

A former general, Thein Sein surprised even many skeptics by launching a raft of reforms after taking office in 2011 as a nominal civilian, including freeing political prisoners and relaxing censorship.

He has allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament, a drastic turnaround for the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest. -