YANGON, Myanmar – Launching a landmark visit to long-shunned Myanmar, President Obama said today he came to “extend the hand of friendship” to a nation moving from persecution to peace.
But his praise and personal attention came with an admonition to those in charge: The work of ensuring and protecting freedoms has just begun.
On an overcast and steamy day, Obama touched down this morning, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Asian nation also known as Burma. Tens of thousands of people packed the streets to see his motorcade speed through the city. Many of them waved American flags and took photos with their smartphones.
The president was meeting with President Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country’s recent reforms. Obama was also to meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest, a gated compound with a lawn ringed by roses.
Obama was to close with a speech at the University of Yangon, where he planned to praise the country’s progress toward democracy but urge further reforms.
“Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected,” the president said in speech excerpts released by the White House. “Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted. As you take these steps, you can draw on your progress.”
Obama’s visit to Myanmar was to last just six hours, but it carries significant symbolism, reflecting a remarkable turnaround in the countries’ relationship.
Obama has rewarded Myanmar’s rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties. The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
In his speech, Obama recalls a promise he made upon taking office in 2009 – that the United States would extend a hand if those nations that ruled in fear unclenched their fists.
“Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship,” he said. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
Some human rights groups say Myanmar’s government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, hasn’t done enough to earn a personal visit from Obama. The president said from Thailand on Sunday that his visit is not an endorsement of the government in Myanmar but an acknowledgment that dramatic progress is underway and it deserves a global spotlight.
Obama came down the steps of Air Force One next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in recognition of their final foreign trip together. Clinton is leaving the job soon.
The president’s stop came between visits to Thailand and Cambodia. His Asia tour also marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising re-election campaign. For his first post-election trip, he settled on Asia, a region he has deemed the region as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security.
The White House said Obama would express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people – the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya – have been displaced.
The U.N. has called the Rohingya – who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar – among the world’s most persecuted people.
The White House said Obama was to press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.