US paves way for Myanmar president visit

US President Barack Obama on Wednesday waived visa restrictions for Myanmar's leader Thein Sein to visit during next month's UN summit in a show of support for reforms in the country.

Obama ordered an exception in a visa ban on Myanmar's leaders to let Thein Sein travel freely during the UN General Assembly. Thein Sein would otherwise have been confined to a narrow area around the UN headquarters in New York.

Obama made the decision "to signal our interest in engaging more closely with him and his government as they continue to undertake reforms," White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

"Burma's progress in undertaking political and economic reform has been facilitated, to a large degree, by our increasing engagement with key reformers in the government," Vietor said, using Myanmar's former name.

Vietor said that the decision would allow Thein Sein, who took office last year, and reformist ministers to meet with US officials and to gain "a better understanding of democracy and US policy" during the visit.

Thein Sein, a former general, surprised many by releasing political prisoners, relaxing censorship and opening dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority guerrillas.

The Obama administration, hoping to encourage further reforms, has sent a US ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in more than two decades and has eased restrictions on investment by US companies.

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is due to visit the United States next month -- a trip that would have been unimaginable a short while ago -- where she will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, a top US honor.

Thein Sein is expected to come to the United States at roughly the same time as Suu Kyi.

Under a 2008 law, the United States bars visas for Myanmar's leaders or military involved in human rights abuses.

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