Obama's visit to Myanmar marks 'new chapter' in US-Myanmar relations
As Myanmar tiptoes toward democracy, Obama - the first US president to visit the former pariah state - denied he was endorsing the government amid criticism that his visit came too soon.
President Obama¬†became the first American president to visit¬†Myanmar¬†on Monday, using a six-hour trip to balance US praise for the government's progress in shaking off military rule with pressure to complete the process of democratic reform.
Obama, greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the former capital, Yangon, met President¬†Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011, and opposition leader¬†Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I shared with President¬†Thein Sein¬†our belief that the process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward,"¬†Obama¬†told reporters, with¬†Thein Sein¬†at his side.¬†
"I recognize that this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey, but we think that a process of democratic reform and economic reform here in¬†Myanmar¬†... can lead to incredible development opportunities here,"¬†Obama¬†said, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than¬†Burma, which is 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."
"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.
Obama's Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, was 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.
The trip to¬†Myanmar¬†highlighted what the¬†White House¬†has touted as a major foreign policy achievement ‚Äď its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving American and Burmese flags, lined¬†Obama's route from the airport after his arrival, cheering him as he went by.
'Icon of democracy'
Obama¬†met fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate¬†Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and is now a lawmaker, at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest.
Addressing reporters afterwards,¬†Suu Kyi¬†thanked¬†Obama¬†for supporting the political reform process. But, speaking so softly she was barely audible at times, she cautioned that the most difficult time was "when we think that success is in sight."
"Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people," she said.
Obama¬†recalled¬†Suu Kyi's years of captivity and said she was "an icon of democracy who has inspired people not just in this country but around the world."
"Today marks the next step in a new chapter between the¬†United States¬†and¬†Burma," he said, using the country name that she prefers. Before he left, the two embraced and he kissed her on the cheek.
Earlier,¬†Obama¬†made an unscheduled stop at the landmark¬†Shwedagon Pagoda, where he, Secretary of State¬†Hillary Clinton¬†and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.
Minority violence continues
The¬†United States¬†has softened sanctions and removed a ban on most imports from¬†Myanmar¬†in response to reforms already undertaken, but it has set conditions for the full normalisation of relations, including efforts to end ethnic conflict.
In recent months, sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of¬†Rakhine¬†has killed at least 167 people.
Many in¬†Myanmar¬†consider the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring¬†Bangladeshand the government does not recognise them as citizens. A Reuters investigation into the wave of sectarian assaults painted a picture of organised attacks against the Muslim community.
"For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic¬†Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people,"¬†Obama¬†told a packed audience for a speech atYangon University.
"The Rohingya ... hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it's necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence."
Thein Sein, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week, promised to tackle the root causes of the problem, and¬†Obama¬†said he welcomed "the government's commitment to address the issues of injustice, and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship."
High profile prisoner release
Some human rights groups objected to the¬†Myanmar¬†visit, saying¬†Obama¬†was rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job that was incomplete. Speaking in¬†Thailand¬†on the eve of his visit,¬†Obamadenied he was going to offer his "endorsement" or that his trip was premature.
Aides said¬†Obama¬†was determined to lock in the democratic changes under way in¬†Myanmar, but would press for further action, including the freeing of all political prisoners.
Obama¬†announced the resumption of US aid programs in¬†Myanmar¬†during his visit. An administration official said the USAID program would include assistance of $170 million in total for fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this would be dependent on further reforms.
In a move clearly timed to show goodwill, the authorities began to release dozens more political detainees on Monday, including Myint Aye, arguably the most prominent dissident left in its gulag.
Despite human rights concerns, the¬†White House¬†sees¬†Myanmar¬†as a legacy-building success story of Obama's policy of seeking engagement with US enemies. In his Yangon speech, he appealed to¬†North Korea¬†to take a similar path.
"To the leadership of¬†North Korea, I've offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons, and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you'll find an extended hand from the¬†United States¬†of¬†America," he said.