Myanmar President Thein Sein and President Obama. Image: Flickr user hadoanh

Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein’s Visit to Washington, D.C.

ASEAN

U Thein Sein, the first president of Myanmar to visit the United States in almost fifty years, has just concluded a visit to Washington, D.C. signifying a historic improvement in US-Myanmar relations. President Barack Obama met with President Sein in the Oval office and acknowledged that “there have been significant bilateral tensions between our countries. But what has allowed this shift in relations is the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform.” However, President Obama expressed “deep concern” regarding ongoing internal ethnic and religious tensions inside Myanmar. He also recognized that the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi whom he met while on a visit to Myanmar last year, were encouraging and highlighted that as a result of ongoing democratic reforms “the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar.”

President Sein thanked President Obama for his “reengagement policy to reengage with our country so that we have seen improvement in our bilateral relation[s] within a short period of time.” He asserted his determination to “move forward” with political and economic reforms but also emphasized that “we will also need the assistance and understanding from the international community, including the United States.” In his remarks with President Obama he insisted that “we can build a new democratic state – a new Myanmar, a new democratic state in our country.”

After his visit to the White House, President Sein attended a gala dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and US-ASEAN Business Council. Alexander Feldman, US-ASEAN Business Council president, described President Sein’s visit as marking “a true turning point in U.S.-Myanmar relations,” adding that the business community in the United States is committed “to continuing to support Myanmar’s re-engagement with the global community, not just through trade and investment, but also through engaging with the Myanmar government as they work towards important milestones like their 2014 chairmanship of ASEAN. Myanmar’s chairmanship year will be critical to the successful completion of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015.”

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Asia Tami Overby remarked on the importance of Myanmar’s unfolding political and economic reforms, as they would “ease trade and investment restrictions, giving American businesses an enormous opportunity to engage Myanmar’s growing consumer market.” This in turn would help ensure that Myanmar’s democratic transition would continue as “U.S. companies can provide the training, human resource development, respect for the environment, respect for the rule of law, and the highest standards of governance and transparency – all of which the Myanmar government and private sector have repeatedly requested.”

As an indicator of further mutual economic engagement, Acting United States Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis and Myanmar’s Deputy Commerce Minister Dr. Pwint San signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) the next day. Ambassador Marantis highlighted U.S. support for Myanmar’s “peaceful and prosperous future,” adding that “Stronger institutions, transparency, and rule of law create stronger foundations for commercial transactions, trade and investment.” Although small, for the first three months of 2013 bilateral US-Myanmar goods trade—c onsisting mainly of US exports—is valued at around $90 million, compared to $66 million for 2012.

The U.S. Department of State released a fact sheet listing U.S. assistance to Myanmar which include election assistance, the Fulbright Foreign Student Scholarship Program, the Higher Education Partnerships initiative and a joint statement on Good Governance and Transparency in the Energy Sector, amongst other projects that the United States and Myanmar are partnering together in.