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Myanmar president on landmark US visit Monday

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The White House said it will welcome Myanmar's leader on a landmark visit Monday in a symbolic reward by President Barack Obama to encourage reforms in the longtime pariah state.

President Thein Sein, a former general who surprised even many critics by ushering in democratic changes, will be the first leader from the country formerly known as Burma to visit Washington since 1966.

The trip, which was reported by AFP earlier this month, comes despite concerns over intense communal violence and a looming cyclone that is expected to hit an area where thousands remain homeless from the unrest.

The White House said that Obama would ask Thein Sein how the United States can help in the "many remaining challenges to efforts to develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions and bring economic opportunity."

"President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform," the White House said in a statement Wednesday.

The trip follows Obama's own visit to Myanmar in November. The Obama administration has suspended most sanctions on Myanmar as part of a diplomatic drive it launched in 2009 to provide incentives for reforms.

The statement referred to Thein Sein as the president of Myanmar -- not Burma, which is the usual US government usage.

The country's leaders have long advocated the use of Myanmar instead of the old colonial name, which is preferred by many exiles and by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United States still considers Burma to be the name of the country but has begun the "limited use" of Myanmar in "appropriate settings," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.

"While we are not changing our policy to officially adopt 'Myanmar,' we believe that showing respect for a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda is an important signal of support for its efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed," she said.

Since Thein Sein took charge, Myanmar has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased censorship and allowed Suu Kyi -- a Nobel peace laureate who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest -- to enter parliament.

But a recent Human Rights Watch report accused the country of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim people who are not even considered citizens of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The watchdog said that many Rohingya were among at least 211 people killed in two outbreaks of Buddhist-Muslim violence since June 2012 in the western state of Rakhine, where tens of thousands have been forcibly displaced.

Obama administration officials have argued that Thein Sein has been active in trying to end the communal violence, whose roots predate his tenure.

Representative Joe Crowley, who championed past sanctions measures, said he remained "incredibly concerned by the facts on the ground," including violations of ethnic minorities' rights, the use of rape as a weapon of war and "brutal violence" against Muslims.

"I supported the administration's initial policy of 'action for action' and I have urged them to not waver from that policy," said Crowley, a Democrat from New York.

Aung Min, a senior official in Myanmar, had said earlier that Thein Sein may delay his departure depending on Cyclone Mahasen, which is expected to make landfall early Friday. The UN has warned that 8.2 million people are at risk.

Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Myanmar, credited the government with an "equitable response" to all communities in the path of the storm. In a Twitter message, he urged transparency on response plans.

Five years ago, Cyclone Nardis killed some 140,000 people in Myanmar. The then military regime faced intense criticism for refusing foreign assistance.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130515/myanmar-president-landmark-us-visit-monday