Burmese President Thein Sein on Monday will become the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century.
The former general will meet with President Barack Obama during a visit human rights organizations and some politicians say is premature because of anti-Muslim violence and continuing rights violations in Burma.
Officials say the two countries are expected to use the visit to work out agreements that could lead to regular talks on boosting trade, labor standards and investment.
On Sunday, President Thein Sein said in a town hall meeting at the Voice of America that ethnic violence against minority Muslims in western Burma is criminal behavior, not civil strife. He acknowledged some "heavy-handed" actions by police in their efforts to control political dissent in his country, and said both protesters and police must come to understand their responsibilities as democracy takes hold.
He told a group of about 30 Burmese living in the United States that the development of democracy in his homeland must go hand in hand with economic development and that economic growth must come first.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch
accused Burmese authorities of practicing ethnic cleansing against minority Rohingya Muslims
, most of whom are denied Burmese citizenship and other basic rights. The New York-based group also accused the military of failing to stop the violence, and in some cases participating. Burmese authorities have repeatedly disputed those claims.
A small group of protesters gathered outside VOA Sunday, calling for minority rights in Burma.
Washington has been re-engaging the Burmese government since Burma's long-ruling military junta stepped aside in late 2010 and permitted democratic elections the following year.
Thein Sein is the first Burmese leader to visit Washington in 47 years. His visit comes six months after President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP.