Myanmar's president will meet Monday with President Obama amid criticism that the Southeast Asian country has done little to end its war against ethnic minority rebels, protect stateless Muslims or institutionalize democratic reforms that have been promised since its military junta was dissolved in 2011.
Still, President Thein Sein's visit to Washington will be the first by a leader of Myanmar since President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted military strongman Ne Win at the White House in 1966.
"This trip is premature and undeserved," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The Obama administration says, 'We reward them for their reforms,' but the problem is it seems to reward [Myanmar's rulers] whether they reform or not. It is not calibrating its carrots and sticks correctly."
Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director for Amnesty International USA, said the administration must avoid treating Thein Sein's visit as a "mission accomplished" moment, referring to President George W. Bush's pronouncement about the Iraq war in 2003.
"This is a time for the Obama administration to underscore the continuing challenges that Myanmar faces in the areas of human rights, rule of law and transparency, and to develop an action plan with the government of Myanmar to address those concerns," Mr. Jannuzi said. "We are not against high-level diplomacy with Myanmar, but it should be focused on a future-oriented agenda for reform ... what it should not be is a premature celebration of job well done."
The Obama administration began normalizing ties with Myanmar in 2011 as the government of Thein Sein, a former general, took steps toward reform. Derek Mitchell was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in two decades, and most of the sanctions against the nation formerly known as Burma were lifted.
However, Myanmar's military, whose political role is enshrined in the constitution, is seen as unwilling to end a war with ethnic minority rebels in the northern Kachin state, near China and India.
Meanwhile in western Rakhine state, security forces have raped, arrested and killed stateless Muslim Rohingyas, more than 100,000 of whom have been left homeless by communal violence with majority Buddhists.
"For us ethnic minorities, the White House visit is a slap in the face," said Myra Dahgaypaw, an ethnic Karen human rights activist who was a refugee for 17 years after her family was displaced by war in Myanmar.
"If the Obama administration really wants to help the people of Burma, it needs to slow down," said Ms. Dahgaypaw, who is campaign coordinator at the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington. "There have to be preconditions for all the carrots it is putting out there. The Burmese people's lives are still in danger."
The Obama administration believes it stands the best chance of nudging Myanmar's leaders toward reform through engagement.
"The president's approach is not to wait for Burma to perfect itself but to dig into the hard work of helping Burma cement the gains it has made and accelerate further reform," said a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on background.
The White House made the release of Myanmar's political prisoners a key condition for improving U.S. ties.
Myanmar has released more than 850 political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but many of them risk being thrown back into prison to serve the remainder of their terms.
Aung Din, a former political prisoner who now lives in the U.S., said Mr. Obama must demand that Thein Sein make the release of political prisoners unconditional.
"Part of me feels that this [White House visit is] too much, too soon. ... But part of me likes the idea of inviting President Thein Sein to the White House," said Aung Din. "This proves that Burma is still on the top of the U.S. foreign policy priorities."
In November, Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar.
"As President Obama noted in his speech in Rangoon last November, the United States is very aware that Burma is at the beginning of what will be a long and challenging road to democracy and reform," the senior U.S. official said. "We've seen a number of meaningful steps in the right direction, including working with civil society to ensure political prisoners are freed, the easing of censorship, the ending of visa restrictions, proliferation of daily newspapers and the beginning of a constitutional reform process.
"We also recognize that reforms are fragile and not fully institutionalized," the official said.
Myanmar has not kept several promises, such as giving humanitarian groups access to ethnic areas and opening a U.N. human rights office.
It allowed Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate who had been in detention for 15 of the previous 20 years at the time of her release in November 2010, to be elected to parliament in April 2012. But it will face a real test of its commitment to democratic reforms in 2015, when national elections are scheduled.
"The concern we have is that the U.S. government will have spent all its capital by then," Mr. Sifton said. "What will you do in 2015 if the military refuses to relinquish power? The sanctions can't be easily put back."
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