Myanmar president to embark on landmark US visit

Myanmar's President Thein Sein is set to head 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 and is expected to outline development plans during his first trip to the US since taking power last year and ushering in a period of rapid reform for his long-isolated country.

"The president will attend the UN General Assembly and will give a speech there," said Zaw Htay, an official in the president's office.

The former 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 US officials have taken pains to ensure her visit does not overshadow that of Thein Sein, who they say deserves credit for Myanmar's breathless pace of change after nearly half a century of junta rule.

In the latest sign of thawing relations, 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.

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 rolling back tough sanctions against the impoverished country and in July Washington gave the green light for US investment there.

Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based analyst for the Vahu Development Institute think-tank, said the latest prisoner release was a "tactical move" to coincide with Thein Sein's trip to the United States, which has long demanded Myanmar free all remaining dissidents.

He said Suu Kyi was unlikely to want to create tension with the Myanmar president during the trip because the government had "reached out" to the veteran activist, who suffered 15 years of house arrest under the junta.

The 67-year-old has used the visit to back the removal of sanctions on Myanmar and 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.

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