After Nearly 50 Years, Burmese Leader Comes To Washington

It's been a while since the last visit by a head of state from Myanmar. The last time was 47 years ago, when the country was still known as Burma. As President Thein Sein arrives at the White House Monday, some will hail him as a reformer who set his country on the path to democracy. Others may protest his arrival, as excessive recognition for a head of state that has presided over continuing human rights abuses.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Myanmar's president is visiting the United States today. It's been a while since the last visit by a head of state from that country. In fact, the last one came 47 years ago when Myanmar was still known as Burma. As President Thein Sein arrives at the White House today, some hail him as a reformer who set his country on the path to democracy; others note continuing human rights abuses. And we're going to talk this through with NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Anthony Kuhn. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So who is Thein Sein?

KUHN: He's a very uncharismatic, not very eye-catching head of state. He's fairly short. His spoken delivery is pretty wooden. He's not in great health. He's got a pacemaker hooked up. But a lot of people see him as fairly clean and fairly honest. He comes from a very poor farming family in the Irrawaddy Delta. He rose up through the military to become a lieutenant general. And over the past couple of years he has presided over a real transformation of his country. The reforms include the release of political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, easing of censorship on the media, and the signing of ceasefires with several ethnic insurgent groups that have been fighting the government for decades. And so while Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries in the world and still faces an uphill battle, you know, a lot of hope has been introduced. The place just looks and feels a lot different than when he was elected two years ago.

INSKEEP: And when you s ay a lot of hope has been introduced, is it fair to say it was introduced by this man? As uncharismatic as he may be, he did it.

KUHN: Well, he was handpicked by the former head of the military junta, Than Shwe, and some people wonder whether this is a public relations move. They question whether he's genuine about reforms and whether he is completely in control. And they point to, first of all, the fight against the ethnic insurgent groups earlier this year. President Thein Sein declared a unilateral ceasefire but the military kept pounding the rebels. Also there has been violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar. And Thein Sein has come out with some very strong statements, saying he will protect the rights of Muslims and minorities. But the security forces haven't done it. They've stood by idly. Some people say they've even been complicit in the violence. So people wondering, are the military completely following his orders?

INSKEEP: On the other side, of course, there's the opposition. What are his relations like with Aung San Suu Kyi?

KUHN: Well, certainly it's been a sea change since under the junta when Aung San Suu Kyi's name could not be spoken. And so everyone just referred to her as the lady. And now she's become an important member of parliament in elections last year. Some people even say she's gotten so close that the government has co-opted her. Now, of course Thein Sein knows that were there to be an election tomorrow, Aung San Suu Kyi would probably sweep it, as her party did last year. There are still provisions in the constitution that means she cannot become president because her children are foreign nationals. But the government has floated the idea of changing that. So their relationship, you could say, has gotten quite a bit closer.

INSKEEP: So what is the United States' interest in this country?

KUHN: Well, the strategic position of Myanmar is so important. It's wedged between China and India. It is China's window on Southeast Asia and back door to the Indian Ocean. And, you know, cultivating ties with China's neighbors in Southeast Asia is key to the U.S. strategy in the region. And the U.S. is very much aware that many of those Southeast Asian nations are looking to the U.S. as a counterweight to China's influence in the region.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting today from Jakarta, Indonesia. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

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