Barack Obama on Monday became the first US president to visit Myanmar, showing other Asian nations – such as North Korea – that America is willing to reach out to help reforms.
President Obama used his trip to Myanmar Monday to signal – not just to the former pariah state but to all of Asia – that the United States will extend a hand of friendship and economic cooperation to all countries that live peacefully and respect the rights of their citizens.
By Monday evening Mr. Obama was in Phnom Penh, where he was to dine with Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, another Southeast Asian country where human rights experts see worrisome limits to basic human rights.
But in Myanmar, Obama delivered a nationally televised speech in which he – as the first US president to visit the longtime military-ruled state, also known as Burma – invoked one of the themes of his 2009 inaugural address. He offered America’s hand to adversaries willing to “unclench their fist.”
Obama said his visit was fulfillment of that promise and a message to unmoved regimes – like North Korea – that America’s hand is still extended. He also made it clear that he chose to visit Yangon (Rangoon) – not the new national capital in Naypyidaw – because Yangon is the largest city and intellectual heart of the country, as well as the seat of the Burmese people’s long struggle for freedom.
“Here in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia,” Obama said. “We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past, we need to look forward to the future.”
Obama was criticized for making the trip to Myanmar by some human-rights groups that say the country still has a long way to go in securing political reforms, and that political prisoners are still locked up. But Obama said that, far from celebrating a completed transition, his trip was meant to recognize the considerable reforms Myanmar has already accomplished and to encourage its leaders to continue the process.