WHITE HOUSE —
President Barack Obama has announced that the United States is prepared to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar, following talks at the White House with the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
After their meeting Wednesday, both leaders spoke to reporters in the Oval Office. Citing that country’s “remarkable social and political transformation,” Obama said, "The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time.”
After their remarks, a reporter shouted a question at the president about the timeline for lifting U.S. economic sanctions, and Obama replied, “Soon.”
WATCH: Obama on Aung San Suu Kyi's outreach to ethnic minorities
Earlier, he sent a letter to Congress saying the administration is moving to restore trade benefits to Myanmar that were suspended more than two decades ago because of human rights abuses.
Speaking alongside Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi thanked him personally for being the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. She also thanked the Congress for putting pressure on Myanmar to restore human rights.
But she said the time has now come for the U.S. to lift all sanctions, saying “unity also needs prosperity, because people, when they have to fight over limited resources, forget that standing together is important.”
She pleaded for people to visit and invest in the country, saying, “I expect businessmen to come to our country to make profits.” She said she expects Myanmar’s legislature to pass a new investment law she hopes will be very attractive to countries around the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged that while Myanmar has made progress in its transition to democracy, there is "so much that has to be done." She cited continuing tensions among its135 ethnic groups, and said her administration is focused on the situation in Rakhine state, saying "communal strife is not something we can ignore."
WATCH: Aung San Suu Kyi on importance of national reconciliation
Some human rights leaders say it is too soon to lift sanctions on Myanmar because the government’s human rights record has been mixed, particularly with regard to the rights of religious minorities and its indifference to the suffering of the Rohingyas.
The White House says Aung San Suu Kyi has made significant progress on these human rights concerns since she took office six months ago. Obama conceded there is a lot of work that remains to be done, but marveled at how far Myanmar has come.
“If you predicted five years ago Aung San Suu Kyi would now be here sitting as the dually elected representative of her country, many people would have been skeptical. But it is a good news story in an era in which so often we see countries going in the opposite direction."
Obama urged Americans to travel to Myanmar, saying it is a beautiful country with a rich culture and wonderful people.
Aung San Suu Kyi also is meeting with key members of Congress during this visit, and is likely also to try to persuade them this is the right time to lift economic sanctions.
But after a breakfast meeting Wednesday with some congressional leaders at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence, influential Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker put out this statement:
“While we certainly appreciate the work Aung San Suu Kyi has done to ensure a democratic transition in Burma, I am somewhat appalled by her dismissive reaction to concerns I raised this morning about the problem of human trafficking in her country. After witnessing her lack of regard for Burma’s dismal track record on this issue, I plan to pay very close attention to her government’s efforts to prevent innocent human beings from being trafficked and sold into forced labor and sex slavery.”
Corker has been a leading advocate in the Senate against global human trafficking.
This was Aung San Suu Kyi's 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.
Myanmar's de facto leader
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.
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 those sanctions in 2013.