Thein Sein aide: U.S. visit endorses ‘Myanmar’s spring’

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President Thein Sein’s historic invitation to the White House is an endorsement of “Myanmar’s Spring” and a further sign that the former pariah’s reforms are irreversible, a senior Myanmar official said.

Washington will welcome the former general on Monday in a hugely symbolic reward for sweeping changes since he took power two years ago. He will be the first leader of the former military-ruled nation to visit since 1966.

But the trip comes amid heightened concerns over the direction and durability of Myanmar’s democratic reforms, in particular following several outbreaks of deadly communal and religious violence.

In an interview with AFP from the capital Naypyidaw, Zaw Htay, director of Thein Sein’s office, moved to address those concerns, saying his country would not backtrack on its path towards democracy.

“Myanmar’s Spring is more concrete than the Arab Spring. This spring represents the values that the U.S. has been promoting around the world,” he said.

He hailed the “momentum” of the reforms as well as warming Myanmar-U.S. ties since President Barack Obama’s own visit to Myanmar in November.

Thein Sein’s trip shows “U.S. support for the president’s leadership and his reform process,” he said.

“The U.S. worries how firm our country’s steps towards democracy will be and whether we may go backwards or not,” he added.

“President [Thein Sein] has firmly stated that he will never go backwards.”

Under Thein Sein’s stewardship, Myanmar has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased censorship, taken steps to open the economy and allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- a Nobel peace laureate who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest -- to enter parliament.

But rights groups have decried recent anti-Muslim violence and accused the security forces of failing to stop -- or even supporting -- sectarian attacks.

The White House on Thursday said Obama would offer U.S. help in the “many remaining challenges to efforts to develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions and bring economic opportunity” in Myanmar.

The trip is part of Washington’s diplomatic drive -- launched in 2009 -- to reward reforms in the resource-rich and strategically significant nation, which borders China.

The Obama administration has suspended most sanctions against Myanmar as it seeks to encourage the changes and extend its influence in the long-isolated nation.