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Myanmar says president to make official US visit

YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar state television announced Monday that President Thein Sein will make a state visit to the United States in the near future, the first by a Myanmar head of state in almost 47 years and a sign of warming ties.

The visit comes at the invitation of President Obama, said the brief announcement, which gave no exact date.

The last Myanmar leader to visit the White House was the late dictator Ne Win in 1966.

The United States has been a prime mover in urging Thein Sein to introduce changes after five decades of repressive military rule that ended when he became an elected head of state in 2011.

Last November, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, a step in his administration’s efforts to end decades of diplomatic isolation of the country also known as Burma and to reward its shift from authoritarian rule.

The U.S. applied political and economic sanctions against the previous military regime for its human rights abuses and undemocratic rule, but the Obama administration shifted its policy to engagement, gradually lifting most sanctions following changes.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries had throttled Myanmar’s economic growth, so Thein Sein was eager to win the United States' favor by freeing political prisoners, changing laws to open the political field to the pro-democracy movement of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and undertaking financial liberalization, among other measures.

U.S. congressional staffers and State Department officials said a visit by Thein Sein is being planned for this month, but the administration has yet to announce it.

The U.S.-ASEAN Business Council said it and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will host a dinner for Thein Sein in Washington next Monday night.

Thein Sein visited New York last September and met with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but did not travel to Washington.

A White House welcome for Thein Sein could stir criticism from some people that the administration is moving too quickly to grant him diplomatic rewards.

An explosion of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state last year has spread in recent months to central Myanmar.

Last year’s attacks left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced, while dozens more died in the more recent violence. Most of the victims have been minority Muslims.

While there’s still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration’s efforts to support reformers such as Thein Sein, the unrest, and Myanmar authorities’ failure to prevent it, has deepened concern about the human rights situation in the country.

Matthew Pennington of the Associated Press in Washington contributed to this report.