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Myanmar leader plans Washington visit

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Myanmar President Thein Sein plans a landmark visit to Washington this month in a sign of US support for his reforms despite a recent surge in anti-Muslim violence, a source said Thursday.

Thein Sein, who would be the first leader of the country to visit in half a century, is planning to be in the US 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 declined immediate comment but have previously said that they were studying a visit by Thein Sein.

The source said the United States was considering as another gesture a change in US policy to call the nation Myanmar, the leaders' preferred usage, and not the previous name of Burma, which is used by exile groups.

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.

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

He has also allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament, a once unthinkable gesture as the Nobel Peace laureate spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest.

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 Rohingya Muslims, saying that at least 211 have been killed since June 2012 and tens of thousands more forcibly displaced.

Obama paid his own visit to Myanmar in November when he praised the nation for its transition but called on it to move forward on reforms, particularly in its dealing with ethnic minorities.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130502/myanmar-leader-plans-washington-visit-1