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US President Barack Obama to visit Burma

image captionUS Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma in 2011

Fresh from his election win, Barack Obama will this month become the first US president to visit Burma, the White House says.

He will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is part of a three-leg tour from 17 to 20 November that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia.

The government of Burma has begun implementing economic, political and other reforms, a process the Obama administration sought to encourage.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was previously the most senior US official to go to Burma when she visited in December 2011.

'Democratic transition'

Mr Obama's Burma stop is part of a trip built around the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Cambodia, which leaders from China, Japan and Russia will also attend.

In a statement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr Obama intended to "speak to civil society to encourage Burma's ongoing democratic transition".

The BBC's David Bamford says the trip - Mr Obama's first foreign initiative since his re-election this week - reflects the importance that the US has placed on normalising relations with Burma.

image captionBurma has been reforming, but failure to end communal violence in Rakhine has been criticised

This process has moved forward relatively swiftly, our correspondent adds, and it represents an opportunity for the US to have a greater stake in the region and so at least partly counter the dominant influence of China.

Burma "warmly welcomes" Mr Obama's visit, according to a government statement.

The "support and encouragement by the US 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.

Reforms have been taking place in Burma since elections in November 2010 saw military rule replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government.

Since then many political prisoners have been freed and censorship relaxed.

The party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from years of house arrest after the elections, has rejoined the political process after boycotting the 2010 polls. It now has a small presence in parliament after a landslide win in by-elections in April.

In response, the US has appointed a full ambassador to Burma and suspended sanctions. It is also set to ease its import ban on goods from Burma, a key part of remaining US sanctions.

US Representative Joe Crowley told Reuters news agency that Mr Obama's trip could be "the most significant step" in support of democracy, even though he says "still much more" needs to be done.

"Too many political prisoners remain locked up, ethnic violence must be stopped, and not all necessary political reforms have been put in place," said Mr Crowley, who is active on Burma issues.

'Majority and minority'

Human rights groups are likely to criticise Mr Obama's visit as premature, given that the ruling government has failed to prevent outbreaks of communal violence in the west of the country.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state have left about 140 people dead and more than 100,000 people - mostly members of the Muslim Rohingya minority - displaced.

On Wednesday, lawmakers from Burma's ethnic minority parties and Ms Suu Kyi called for more troops to be sent to Rakhine to help contain the tensions.

"Everyone is responsible for respecting human rights, without discriminating between majority and minority, ethnicity and religion," the group said in a statement.

There is long-standing tension between the ethnic Rakhine people, who make up the majority of the state's population, and Muslims, many of whom are Rohingya and are stateless.

The Burmese authorities regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and correspondents say there is widespread public hostility to them.

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