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Obama to Welcome Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi for Talks on Sanctions

  • Cindy Saine
  • VOA News

President Barack Obama welcomes Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the White House Wednesday, where he is eager listen to her views on how far the U.S. should go in lifting sanctions on the southeast Asian country.

It will be her first visit to the U.S. as State Counselor and Foreign Minister – a position she assumed after her party's decisive win in last November's elections. The country's military era constitution bars her from holding the title of president because her late husband and children are foreign citizens.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than 20 years under house arrest in the country formerly known as Burma. Her meeting with Obama in the Oval Office is viewed as another clear indication that she is Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader.

Since taking office in late March, she has not called for an end to all sanctions, which are seen as leverage to encourage the military to allow more democratic reforms.

WATCH: Myanmar minority issue looms over Aung San Suu Kyi's US visit


Economic investment

At a conference on Myanmar in Washington on Tuesday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House wanted to make sure that U.S. sanctions were not preventing economic investment that would help Myanmar's people. "The view of the government matters a lot to us," he said.

At Tuesday’s daily State Department briefing, department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters the lifting of sanctions always was a response to democratic progress. “We are not ready to pull back all the sanctions yet," he said. "Some of them will remain in place. We always retain the right to continue those as long as we feel they are useful.”

Toner said the U.S. was happy to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that much has changed over the past few years in Myanmar. He said human rights concerns remained, and that the U.S. supported peace and steps toward a fuller and stronger democracy.

'Right thing to do'

Myanmar expert Lex Rieffel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research group, told VOA: “I think it is absolutely the right thing to do to consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and make sure that we don't get out of ahead of her and don't get too far behind her. This is a country that has so many problems. It is hard for Americans, I believe, to even imagine the number of problems, the difficulty, the complexity of the problems she faces as the leader of this country.”

Rieffel said those problems include a lack of infrastructure, such as a huge shortage of electrical power needed to operate businesses.

Sanctioned items

Over the past 20 years, the White House and Congress have maintained a long list of sanctions on Myanmar, including restrictions on jade and gemstones, and on businesses linked to the sales of arms and illegal drugs. Obama eased some of the sanctions in 2013, and some major U.S. companies, including Coca-Cola and General Motors, have ventured into Myanmar’s economy.

Closer ties between Myanmar and the U.S. are viewed as one of Obama’s foreign policy successes and part of his pivot to Asia. Rieffel told VOA that if Aung San Suu Kyi could succeed in leading the transition to democracy and helping Myanmar achieve peace after 60 years of civil war, it would be an inspiration to other countries around the world that have had protracted conflicts.

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