By Samuel Burke & Juliet Fuisz, CNN
It is known as the Myanmar miracle.
Or that is the hope for the country of almost 50 million people tucked between Asian powerhouses India and China. Just three years ago, Myanmar was being brutally led by one of the world's most repressive military regimes; today, it is a fledgling democracy.
For decades, Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was best known for the heroic struggle of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest, separated from her husband and sons by her military jailers.
But she kept up the struggle to reform her beleaguered country and now her vision is becoming reality at a breathtaking pace.
She may be the icon of democracy in Myanmar, but her country now calls someone else the icon of reform: President Thein Sein. He is in the United States for meetings with President Obama Monday– the first time a Burmese leader has visited the White House since 1966.
"I myself am amazed at the speed of the improvement of our bilateral relations,” President Thein Sein told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in a TV exclusive on Sunday. “But there are no permanent friends or permanent foes in international relations."
In November, President Obama became the first-ever U.S. leader to visit Myanmar. At the time, he was acknowledged that the country was a work in progress.
"I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be," Obama said in November. "On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time."
Though Myanmar is charging towards change, economic liberalization, lifting press censorship, and representative democracy, major problems do still persist. There's endemic poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and an explosion of brutal ethnic violence, specifically the targeting and massacre of the country's Muslim minority by its Buddhist majority.
The group Physicians for Human Rights today accused the government and security forces of standing idly by, and called for an independent investigation into the killings.
President Thein Sein is in Washington with the hope that the U.S. will ease some of the remaining economic sanctions.
Right now, the United States and China are competing for influence in Myanmar, though President Thein Sein downplays that.
"I must say there's no competition between China and the United States. Our foreign policy is we maintain friendly relations with all countries around the world, and will continue to maintain our friendly relations with China; and at the same time, we'll try to maintain and improve our relations with the United States," he told Amanpour.
China is worried. They are conducting an unprecedented public relations operation inside Myanmar to convince the people that all their investments will also benefit the Myanmar.
"China continues to be our friendly neighbor," President Thein Sein said.
For many years, the military junta was known as one of the most brutally repressive in the world; now President Thein Sein sings an entirely different tune.
"As one of the citizens of Myanmar, I am trying my best to fulfill the will and the desire of the people," he said."We have a democratically elected constitutional government as well as the elected members of parliament. So it's the duty of the government to fulfill the will and the desire of people. The reforms that we are instituting are the will of the majority of the people."
Though Aung San Suu Kyi spent years in house arrest under his regime, President Thein Sein is now working with her.
"When I met with her, we tried to reach some common ground for the interest of people and the country. So there is some common ground between us. At the same time, we have different views on some issues," President Thein Sein said. "But we were able to agree that we will leave those issues for later and solve our differences through negotiations."
Aung San Suu Kyi told Amanpour in an interview last Septermber that she never took what the junta did to her personally.
"It is politics. I like a lot of the generals. I'm rather inclined to liking people. I always got on with people in the army. You mustn't forget that my father was the founder of the Burmese army," she said.
For more than a year, there has been an explosion of communal violence of Rohingya Muslims being killed, along with other groups.
The government has been criticized for not doing enough to stop this.
"We don't have a policy of discriminating based on religion or race," President Thein Sein told Amanpour. "This communal violence started because of a criminal act and then this led to the communal violence. We're doing our utmost to contain the violence while ensuring the rule of law."
President Obama says there's no excuse for violence against innocents.
"All the citizens in our country must be able to enjoy their fundamental rights," President Thein Sein said. "At the same time, we must also safeguard their rights and the rights in accordance with our law."
Just ahead of this trip President Thein Sein released twenty political prisoners – as he often does before talks with the West.
But will he release all the remaining political prisoners?
"Some of the prisoners that we still detain are there because they've committed crimes such as murder or rape. But they will be released, based on the recommendations of the committee," President Thein Sein said.
But does he feel more comfortable in the old military uniform he used to wear? Or in the civilian suit of a newly minted democrat?
"As president, I have more duties," President Thein Sein admitted. "It is a heavy duty and a heavy responsibility to serve the people and the country."