By Martin Petty
(Reuters) - Myanmar's reformist president heads to the United States this week, keen to win an end to sanctions and open a new chapter in a once frosty relationship that could bring economic and geostrategic benefits to both sides.
After feting Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Washington last week, the United States will welcome Thein Sein, a 67-year-old former general who emerged as the unlikely catalyst for a wave of reforms that were unthinkable a year ago.
Thein Sein's U.S. visit, the first by a Myanmar leader in 46 years, is the strongest sign yet of rapprochement between the two countries -- something that will benefit not only the cash-starved southeast Asian nation, but could help a superpower intent on boosting its political and economic muscle in a booming region.
U.S. aid to Myanmar could resume at some point and the Treasury Department on Wednesday removed individual sanctions against Thein Sein, the latest let-up in the tight restrictions that isolated his country for two decades, squeezed its tattered economy and pushed it closer into China's orbit.
Congress last week approved a bill that would allow President Barack Obama to waive a ban on U.S. participation in providing development loans from international financial institutions like the World Bank to the former British colony.
But crucial to Thein Sein, who leaves Myanmar on Monday to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York, is the removal of a U.S. ban on Burmese imports, which could pave the way for greater foreign investment and create urgently needed jobs.
The European Union set the pace last week in agreeing to grant Myanmar access to its Generalised System of Preferences, a scheme that allows poorer countries access to European markets without quotas or duties.
Presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing, who a diplomatic source said helped smooth the path for Thein Sein's visit, said ending the embargoes would facilitate the kind of reforms the United States has been asking for.
"(The visit) is certainly intended to have some relaxation of restrictions and sanctions," Ko Ko Hlaing told Reuters. "Because they happen now to be obstacles in our reform process."
CASE TO END SANCTIONS
Suu Kyi is also in tune on sanctions with Thein Sein, the former fourth-in-command of the junta that locked her up for 15 years. She received the highest congressional medal on Wednesday and praised the president's reforms, adding Myanmar no longer needed to "depend on U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum".
She met Obama on Wednesday. It is not known if he would also meet his Myanmar counterpart, as recommended by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, which said a decision not to risked being seen as unbalanced and "a failure to appreciate the courageous role" he has played.
Thein Sein has sought to build a strong case for Washington to slash sanctions and deepen engagement with a country the Bush administration dubbed an "outpost of tyranny" while under the rule of reclusive generals, who viewed the U.S. with suspicion.
Thein Sein gave amnesty last week to nearly 90 political prisoners, and sent charismatic president's office minister Aung Min to the United States to showcase peace efforts with ethnic minority rebel groups.
But it is not just Myanmar which stands to gain. The country also known as Burma is of strategic importance to Washington in terms of its geographical location, business potential and its decades-old alliance with China.
Sanctions on Myanmar allowed China to command huge influence there and experts say closer U.S. engagement serves Washington's unspoken goal of containing China by cosying up to poorer Southeast Asian countries with close ties to Beijing.
As one of Asia's last untapped frontier markets and with a population of 60 million, Myanmar also offers corporate America plentiful opportunities in energy, extractive industries, financial services, retail, hotels and tourism. PepsiCo Inc, Coca-Cola and GE have already set up.
"It's a win-win situation for both countries and a chance to show the damage from the past can be repaired. It's therefore crucial Presidents Obama and Thein Sein meet," said Aung Thu Nyein of the Vahu Development Institute, a Myanmar think-tank.
"Burma needs Washington's help, it fits in with the new U.S. Asia policy and there's much U.S. firms can do in Burma."
(Reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok; Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Naypyitaw; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)