Myanmar president leaves for historic US tour

YANGON - Myanmar's President Thein Sein headed to the United States on Monday for a landmark visit that coincides with a triumphal American tour by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thein Sein will attend the United Nations General Assembly and is expected to outline plans for the future of his fast-changing nation during his first trip to the US since taking power last year and ushering in a period of rapid reform.

"The trip will open a new chapter with the international community," Zaw Htay, an official in the Presidential Office told AFP of a visit that marks the latest step in dramatically thawing relations with the US, which has started rolling back sanctions against the former pariah.

"He is expected to explain the reform process of the country including what the government has done and what it is going to do," said Zaw Htay, adding that the president was set to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as other senior US, European and UN officials.

Thein Sein set off from Yangon on Monday evening, according to a government official.

He was accompanied by immigration minister Khin Yi and border affairs minister Thein Htay, both prominent figures in the regime's efforts to tackle deadly unrest in the west of the country between Buddhists and Muslims.

Thein Sein, a former junta general who last week freed dozens of political prisoners, will have to share the limelight with Suu Kyi, received with acclaim during her first trip to the US since she began her struggle for democracy more than two decades ago.

The Nobel laureate has already been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honour bestowed by the legislature, and has met President Barack Obama at the White House since arriving in the country last week.

But while US officials have taken pains to stress that Thein Sein deserves credit for Myanmar's breathless pace of change after nearly half a century of junta rule, there are no official plans for him to meet Obama.

The United States last week lifted sanctions on the Myanmar president and lower house parliament speaker Shwe Mann, removing them from the US Treasury's list of "Specially Designated Nationals".

The pair were put on the list in 2007, when Thein Sein was prime minister and Shwe Mann was joint chief of staff of the armed forces, as America raised pressure on the ruling junta.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, said the fact that Thein Sein had been allowed to enter the US "is already significant".

"You can see the flexibility of US policy towards Myanmar, and I think this is the road which will lead towards the total abolition of sanctions in the future," he told AFP.

He said Suu Kyi, who has undergone a transformation from political prisoner to politician in just two years, would have spoken to "praise" Thein Sein in her own meeting with the US president.

Sweeping changes in Myanmar under the new quasi-civilian regime have seen Suu Kyi elected to parliament and included tentative ceasefires with several of the country's major armed ethnic minority groups.

The international community has responded by dismantling tough embargoes against the impoverished country and in July Washington gave the green light for US investment there.

Suu Kyi has used the visit to back the removal of sanctions on Myanmar and to underline the remarkable new direction the country has taken.

"There has been change, not yet all the changes necessary to make sure we are going to be a genuinely democratic society, but there have been changes," she said on Saturday in a speech at Queens College in New York.

The agenda of Suu Kyi's unprecedented US tour includes nearly 100 events across the country but rules out a chance of her crossing paths with Thein Sein.

The 67-year-old will head on September 25 to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to meet the sizable Burmese community that has resettled in the Midwestern city. Her other stops include Louisville, Kentucky as well as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Thein Sein is set to return to Myanmar on October 1.

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