Burmese are celebrating an end to their long international isolation with the first state visit to the US by a Myanmar president in almost 50 years.
Myanmar President Thein Sein's historic Monday meeting with US President Obama has been well-received at home, with Burmese seemingly happy that the country is gaining some positive recognition on the world stage after decades of isolation.
Myanmar and the United States signed a new trade and investment promotion agreement on Tuesday, which they hope will boost the currently-miniscule commerce between the two countries, currently valued at $90 million.
“We are happy that our country is changing to democracy,” says Kyaw Moe Tha, an artist from Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city. “And it is important for us that America and other Western countries increase contact with us.”
The last time Myanmar's top leader made a state visit to the United States, the country was called "Burma" and Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. That was in 1966. Myanmar was four years into what became five decades of military dictatorship. As repression worsened, particularly after student protests in 1988, Myanmar was deemed an “outpost of tyranny,” prompting the US and other Western countries to impose sanctions on exports and investment.
Now, two years into political and economic reforms that won praise from President Obama, Myanmar is seeking increased American investment and official aid, which it hopes will kick-start the country's economy and create jobs. Though Myanmar is rich in natural resources, only some 25 percent of the 60 million population have regular electricity. Tens of millions of rural Burmese depend on subsistence agriculture.
Zaw Zaw, a high-profile Myanmar businessman who has faced US sanctions because of his close ties to Myanmar's former military regime, says that Mr. Thein Sein's visit to Washington is going down well at home.
“This is a very good thing for our country and I hope for both countries,” says Mr. Zaw Zaw, whose wide-ranging business interests include construction, hotels, timber, and gems.
After a transfer of power to a nominally civilian government in 2011, and reforms that included freeing hundreds of political prisoners and loosening restrictions on freedom of speech, the US responded by removing many sanctions.
Still, some remain in place, including financial and trade restrictions on figures close to the Myanmar military – such as Zaw Zaw.
The Myanmar government wants the slate wiped clean, however. Speaking in Washington on Monday, Thein Sein told students at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, “we are trying hard to end Myanmar’s isolation, see the removal of all sanctions, and make the contributions we can to both regional and global security and development.”
Critics point out that the Myanmar government has stalled on reforms in recent months. They want the US to keep restrictive measures against the country intact – until there’s an end to ethnic fighting and sectarian discrimination in the country.
In Washington on Monday Thein Sein pledged to work for peace -- though on the same day the US State Department published its annual review of religious freedom around the world. Buddhist-majority Myanmar appeared with eight countries where discrimination against minorities is among the worst.
In June 2011, as Myanmar undertook reforms that earned Thein Sein his White House visit this week, the military resumed a decades-old war with ethnic Kachin fighters in a mountainous, resource-rich region in the country's north.
More than 100,000 mostly Christian Kachin have been driven from their homes by the fighting, while a similar number of Muslims – many of them from a stateless group known as the Rohingya – sit in makeshift camps on the country's west coast, close to the border with Bangladesh.
Also in recent weeks, Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslims in the center of Myanmar.
Maung Zarni, a fellow at the London School of Economics from Burma, says the US is playing a wider strategic game in Myanmar, which has in recent decades fallen under increasing Chinese influence, something he believes the US hopes to push back against.
“The USA is pursuing what it considers its 'core interests' in and around Burma at the expense of the Rohingya, the Kachin,” he says.