By Arshad Mohammed
SIEM REAP, Cambodia - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Myanmar's president on Friday to stick with economic and political reforms as his resource-rich country emerges from nearly half a century of reclusive military rule.
"We want you to keep going. We're very committed," Clinton said as she met Thein Sein, a former junta general chosen by parliament last year to lead a quasi-civilian government in a country with extensive timber, gems and natural gas resources.
In the 15 months since taking power, Thein Sein has begun to liberalize Myanmar's economy, released more than 670 political prisoners, permitted greater media freedom, allowed the formation of political parties and held peace talks with rebels.
Clinton and Thein Sein met at a business conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia, two days after Washington eased sanctions to allow U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar and provide financial services in the country, also known by its colonial name Burma.
Posing for pictures before their talks, Thein Sein said: "I am very pleased to see that our bilateral relationship (is) improving dramatically. And we are pleased that President Obama eased the sanctions."
In remarks prepared for delivery, Thein Sein said Myanmar was undertaking three major reforms at once: building a democratic state; securing peace agreements with rebels; and developing a market economy after decades of centralization.
U.S. CONCERNS ABOUT ROHINGYA
The two met for about an hour, a senior U.S. official told reporters, saying Clinton pressed Thein Sein over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims, thousands of whom were displaced after sectarian violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state last month.
She also voiced concern about 10 aid workers arrested in the northwesterly region, where long-simmering tension between the mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists flared into violence that killed at least 80 people last month.
Clinton offered to help the people internally displaced by the strife. Many Rohingya Muslims have lived in the state for generations but are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar.
She also pressed Myanmar to sever military-to-military ties with North Korea, prompting Thein Sein to say that his country had no nuclear ties with Pyongyang and was continuing to review their military relationship.
The U.S. official suggested the two officials had a closer bond than when they met last year in Myanmar.
"They didn't know each other (then)," the official said. "This was a conversation between two people who are really committed to this relationship, committed to a reform agenda, and have some progress together under their belts."
'SHORT PERIOD OF TIME'
At the conference, Clinton praised Thein Sein for having "moved his country such a long distance in such a short period of time." Without naming Myanmar, however, she also generally stressed the importance of democratic reforms and good business practices, saying these were vital for long-term growth.
"The difference between a region on the path to sustainable growth and one whose gains will be more short-term are the norms and the standards for intellectual property protection, for predictability in setting rules and enforcing laws to try to ensure a level playing field for everyone," she said.
Thein Sein said he was committed to reform but complained of the continued imposition of sanctions and of Myanmar's inability to receive funding from international financial institutions.
"With the establishment of a new government in Myanmar, the people of Myanmar wish to see true change in the country," Thein Sein said, speaking in English, saying the government ardently wanted technical assistance and foreign investment.
Obama eased sanctions by carving out broad exceptions to them but formally leaving them in place, retaining leverage over Myanmar if the government should backslide on reforms.
On Wednesday he required American companies to make detailed disclosures about their dealings in the hopes of increasing transparency in Myanmar, among the world's most corrupt countries according to watchdog Transparency International.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Mark Heinrich)