Washington - US President Barack Obama on Monday saluted Myanmar President Thein Sein for his leadership in pushing through startling political reforms, but warned ethnic violence against Muslims must stop.
As his guest became the first leader of his country in almost 50 years to visit the White House, Obama praised Myanmar's journey away from brutal junta rule and promised Washington would offer more political and economic support.
Seated with Thein Sein in the Oval Office, Obama said previously tortured US-Myanmar relations had eased because of "the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform."
Obama repeatedly used the word "Myanmar", rather than Burma. The former is the name introduced during military rule, and which is slowly being used more frequently by US officials as a courtesy to the reforming government.
However, ethnic or sectarian violence, particularly in the western state of Rakhine, has worsened since Washington started easing sanctions, and a Reuters special report published last week found apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims in prison-like ghettos there.
The US president said that Thein Sein had made "genuine efforts" to solve the intricate ethnic wars that have long torn at Myanmar's unity, but spoke out on the plight of Rohingya Muslim minority.
He expressed "deep concern about communal violence that has been directed against Muslim communities inside Myanmar.
"The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop," Obama said.
Thein Sein told reporters through a translator that his country had "many challenges", and was grateful for Obama's policy of engagement towards Myanmar which he said had helped the reform process.
"For democracy to flourish in our country, we will have to move forward, and we will have to undertake political reforms and economic reforms," he said.
The visit went ahead even though critics say Obama's invitation was premature and takes pressure off Myanmar to address abuses such as recent anti-Muslim violence to which security forces allegedly turned a blind eye.
Myanmar armed force
Thein Sein, who took office as a nominal civilian in 2011, surprised even cynics by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, easing censorship and letting long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament.
The most critical test of reform will come in 2015, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections - testing whether the military and its allies would be willing to cede power, potentially to Suu Kyi.
In an interview with the Washington Post published on Monday, Thein Sein would not take a position on whether the Nobel laureate would be allowed to stand - saying the future direction of reform was up to parliament.
But he is also not budging on the constitution's allocation of 25% of seats in parliament to the armed forces, saying that the military had preserved Myanmar's independence.
Thein Sein told the Post that the armed forces would "always have a special place" in government and life in Myanmar.
The army seized control of the country then known as Burma in 1962, ushering in decades of isolation. Military ruler Ne Win in 1966 was the last leader to visit the White House, where he met President Lyndon Johnson.
Obama has made Myanmar a key priority and visited in November. To some, Myanmar represents the biggest success from his pledge in his 2009 inaugural address to reach out to US foes if they "unclench" their fists.
In recent weeks, the United States ended sweeping restrictions on visas, and top trade official Demetrios Marantis visited Myanmar to start discussions on economic measures such as offering duty-free access for certain products.
But in a signal ahead of Thein Sein's visit, Representative Joe Crowley, who has long been active on Myanmar, introduced legislation to extend for one year a ban on trade in the country's gems - a key money-maker for the military.
Crowley, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from New York, said he was "very concerned" about human rights violations in Myanmar, including "brutal attacks" in recent months against the Muslim minority.
At least 192 people died last year in violence between Buddhists in Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship by Myanmar. Most of the victims, and the 140,000 people made homeless in the attacks, were Muslims.
A recent Human Rights Watch report accused Myanmar of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, who are not even considered citizens of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
The US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group that plans protests against Thein Sein, said the United States should have retracted or at least frozen gestures toward Myanmar as a condition to stop abuse of the Rohingya.
"President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's executive director.