The White House announced Friday that President Barack Obama will visit Burma this month and meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to "encourage" reforms. He will become the first U.S. president to visit Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Obama will "speak to civil society to encourage Burma's ongoing democratic transition" during his visit to the South-East Asian country, according to a statement by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Obama's visit from Nov. 17 to 20 will be part of a three-leg tour, which will also include Thailand and Cambodia.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join Obama in Bangkok and travel with him to Burma and Cambodia, the State Department announced Friday.
Clinton visited Burma earlier this year, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to visit that country in five decades.
Washington views political reforms in Burma, which held its first democratic elections in 2010 after two decades of military rule, as the beginning of the strategically important nation's departure from an exclusive Chinese influence.
The office of the Burmese president said it "warmly welcomes" Obama's planned visit. The "support and encouragement by the U.S. president and American people will strengthen the commitment of President Thein Sein's reform process to move forward without backtracking," spokesman Maj Zaw Htay said in a statement. The move shows "concrete support for the democratisation process of President U Thein Sein, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Members of Parliaments and the Myanmar people. President Thein Sein fully believes that the trip of President Obama will push the momentum of the process of democratic reform."
The announcement of Obama's visit comes two months after Washington rolled out a red carpet welcome for Suu Kyi, who met Obama in the White House.
"The Myanmar trip is potentially historic, and for that reason has both tremendous opportunity and risk associated with," The Associated Press quoted Matthew Goodman, a former Obama international economics adviser, as saying.
Obama's visit is likely to draw criticism by human rights groups, which say the government of the Buddhist-majority country has not brought any significant change in ethnic minority states along the country's borders with India, Thailand and China. Even the reforms being introduced are not irreversible, as the country's constitution does not fully support those reforms.
Burma watchers believe the military decided to introduce reforms to reduce its dependence on China, to get the chair of the regional bloc Association of South-East Asian Nations, and to seek easing of Western sanctions.
Burma army soldiers are still at war with armed ethnic minority groups that have been demanding autonomy for decades, including in Karen and Kachin states which is home to a vast number of ethnic minority Christians. The decades-long war has witnessed tens of thousands of civilian casualties – which rights group say must have been a key consideration in the easing of sanctions.