Myanmar maturity: White House meeting with general is not premature

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The meeting of President Barack Obama and President Thein Sein of Myanmar at the White House Monday has reignited some of the controversy over the pace of improvement of U.S. relations with that troubled nation.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a nation of some 50 million in the middle of Southeast Asia. It has had a troubled history (only recently eased to a degree) since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, including a long period of heavy-handed rule by the country's military, who number half a million. It also includes some persecution of Myanmar's ethnic minorities and civilian political majority.

That record is what sustains the argument that America's recent improving of its relations with Myanmar, including with its president, a former general, is premature based on its human rights record to date.

The other line of argument runs that Myanmar is now fairly firmly on the road to democracy, economic development and reasonable government and should be encouraged along that road by U.S. actions such as Mr. Obama's visit there in November and Mr. Thein Sein's visit to the United States and reception at the White House, the first such event in 47 years. Then-Burmese leader Gen. Ne Win met with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.

The picture in Myanmar and in its relations with the outside world is different now. The country's famous political detainee, Aung San Suu Kyi, the lady with the lotus in her hair, was freed in 2011 and her National League for Democracy now plays a role in the Myanmar parliament. Mr. Thein Sein, the other generals and Myanmar's other leaders now seem determined to move Myanmar from its virtually last-place position in Asian tiger development toward a higher standard of living.

Problems remain. There has been recent ugly treatment of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority by its Buddhist majority, while government security forces more or less crossed their arms and watched. There are also other troublesome, probably mistreated, discontented minorities, including the Han Chinese, Kachin, Karen and Shan.

Mr. Obama's argument in favoring the "heavier on the carrot, lighter on the stick" approach to Mr. Thein Sein's government is that occasions like his visit there and the Myanmar president's visit here provide occasions for him to say, "The reforms you are making are right, keep on doing them and we will be able to help," with the implication that if they don't, America can't. There are also the matters of American competition with China, in Southeast Asia and in the world, and Myanmar's oil and gas.

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