YANGON, Myanmar – Launching a landmark visit to long shunned Myanmar, President Barack Obama said today he comes 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 will also 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 will close with a speech at the University of Yangon, where he will 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 – 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 postelection trip, he tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed the region as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security.
Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama’s second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.
China’s rise is also at play in Myanmar, which long has aligned itself with Beijing. But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy.
Even as Obama turned his sights on Asia, widening violence in the Middle East competed for his attention.
Obama told reporters Sunday that Israel had the right to defend itself against missile attacks from Gaza. But he urged Israel not to launch a ground assault in Gaza, saying it would put Israeli soldiers, as well as Palestinian citizens, at greater risk and hamper an already vexing peace process.
“If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future,” Obama said.
As for Myanmar, as he seeks to assuage critics, Obama has trumpeted Suu Kyi’s support of his outreach efforts, saying Sunday that she was “very encouraging” of his trip.
The White House says Obama will 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 says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.
The president will deliver his speech at a university that was the center of the country’s struggle for independence against Britain and the launching point for many pro-democracy protests. The former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.