Myanmar president heads to U.S.

Sep 24, 2012, 7:40 AM EDT

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's reformist president left Monday for New York to tout his country's makeover at the United Nations and push for an end to sanctions, in the first U.S. visit by a leader of the former international pariah since 1966.

Since becoming president last year, Thein Sein has overseen widely praised economic and political reforms in Myanmar that follow almost a half century of military rule, and his trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly comes as his country enjoys improved relations with the United States.

His visit overlaps with one by Myanmar's biggest celebrity, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The opposition leader's high-profile U.S. visit has included a private meeting with President Barack Obama and standing ovations at awards ceremonies in Washington and New York, including at the United Nations, where she worked 40 years ago.

On recent trips abroad, Suu Kyi has been quietly criticized by the government for upstaging the president. But her U.S. itinerary seems aimed at making sure they don't cross paths. She'll have left New York before Thein Sein arrives, making various stops this week at Ivy League schools on the East Coast before heading to California on her way home.

Thein Sein's visit is bound to attract a smaller spotlight than Suu Kyi's, but it marks another important moment for Myanmar.

The Southeast Asian country's last leader to officially visit the United States was the authoritarian former Prime Minister Ne Win in 1966, when the country was still called Burma.

Thein Sein attended the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, but at the time he was prime minister under the much-criticized former military junta chief, Gen. Than Shwe.

He will deliver a speech Thursday to the General Assembly in which he will highlight the reforms his government has introduced since he took office in March 2011, after the country's first election in 20 years.

"This visit is very significant," Maj. Zaw Htay, the director of the president's office, told The Associated Press.

"The president will outline the democratic, political and economic reforms he has instituted and he will also explain the challenges that lie ahead," Zaw Htay said. "Myanmar is rejoining the international community, and President Thein Sein will also call on the international community for cooperation and assistance."

Since Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat in April, the U.S. has normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar and allowed U.S. companies to start investing there again. Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced it was taking Thein Sein's name off its list of individuals sanctioned from doing business or owning property in America. The administration is now considering easing the main plank of its remaining sanctions, a ban on imports.

Thein Sein is expected to meet with several leaders during the U.N. General Assembly, said Zaw Htay, adding that he was unaware of any plan for him to meet separately with Obama. He will meet Friday with members of Myanmar's expatriate community in New York before returning home, the spokesman said.

When asked if Myanmar's government was concerned that Suu Kyi's visit might outshine the president, Zaw Htay said, "The president doesn't feel uncomfortable or threatened by the warm reception Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received in the U.S." Daw is a term of respect.

Thein Sein "has openly expressed his happiness with her achievements and he will mention that in his speech at the General Assembly," Zaw Htay said.