Barack Obama yesterday became the first serving US president to visit Myanmar, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform.
Obama's first stop was a meeting with President Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011.
"I've shared with him the fact that I recognise this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey," Obama told reporters, with Thein Sein at his side.
"But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities," he said, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than Burma, normally used in the United States.
Thein Sein, speaking in Burmese with an interpreter translating his remarks, responded that the two sides would move forward, "based on mutual trust, respect and understanding".
"During our discussions, we also reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards," he added.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving tiny American and Burmese flags, lined Obama's route to the old parliament in the former capital, Yangon, where he met Thein Sein.
Some held signs saying "We love Obama". Approaching the building, crowds spilled into the street, getting close enough to touch Obama's vehicle.
Obama moved on to meet fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and is now a lawmaker.
On the way, Obama made a surprise stop at the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, where the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.
As two monks guided Obama around, the security team fanned out, talking quietly into their radios.
Obama's trek to Myanmar is meant to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement - its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.
But some international human rights group object to the visit, saying Obama is rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job they regard as incomplete.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his visit, Obama denied he was going to offer his "endorsement" or that his trip was premature.
"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be," Obama said. "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."
Obama's Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, is aimed at showing how serious he is about shifting the US strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called "Asia pivot" is also meant to counter China's rising influence.
Aides said Obama was determined to "lock in" democratic changes already under way in Myanmar, but would also press for further action, including freeing remaining political prisoners and stronger efforts to curb ethnic and sectarian violence.
A senior US official said Obama would announce the resumption of US aid programmes in Myanmar during his visit, anticipating assistance of $170 million in fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this, too, would be dependent on further reforms.
"The president will be announcing that the United States is re-establishing a USAID mission in Burma, which has been suspended for many years," the official told reporters in Bangkok, declining to be named. - Reuters
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