(YANGON, Myanmar) — Becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit this long-isolated nation, President Obama on Monday extended “the hand of friendship” to Myanmar as the country emerges from five decades of harsh authoritarian rule. But he cautioned that the young democracy has “much further to go.”
“Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected,” the president told a subdued crowd at the University of Yangon. “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.”
Showcasing one of the foreign policy accomplishments of his first term, he praised the “dramatic transition” that Myanmar has made as he attempts to lock-in the nation’s reforms and encourage additional progress.
Obama made history when Air Force One touched down at 9:35 a.m. local time. The president, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was greeted by tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Yangon, including roughly 2,000 school children who stood shoulder-to-shoulder waving U.S. and Myanmar flags.
Obama’s first stop was at the government headquarters, where he met with reformist President Thein Sein.
“I’ve shared with him the fact that I recognize this is just the first step on what will be a long journey,” Obama told reporters, with 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.”
While the U.S. uses the term “Burma,” the former name of the country, Obama referred to it as “Myanmar” — the preferred terminology of the former military government — when meeting with Sein.
“I shared with President Thein Sein our belief that the process of reform that he has taken is one that will move this… country forward,” Obama said.
Obama then made a personal visit to the home of opposition leader, and fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she lived under house arrest before being released two years ago.
“One of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world,” the president told reporters after their visit. “Here through so many difficult years is where she displayed such unbreakable courage. It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.”
Speaking at the university — the culmination of his visit — with Suu Kyi and Clinton sitting in the first row, Obama warned that “no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation” — one of only two lines in his speech that received applause from the crowd.
“You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to transform cease-fires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace where conflict lingers,” he said.
Obama’s visit — a brief six-hour stop on his whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia — is seen as a symbolic validation of the country’s changes. Human rights groups, however, have said the president’s trip is premature because the government continues to hold political prisoners and human rights abuses are ongoing.
In his remarks, the president noted that to protect freedom, those in power must accept constraints.
“That is how you must reach for the future you deserve — a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many, and the law is stronger than any leader,” he said.
This journey to Myanmar is a first, but also a poignant last for Clinton. In Yangon, she came down the air-stairs alongside Obama for what the White House calls her final trip with him as Secretary of State and her final official ride on Air force One as the architect of his foreign policy. Clinton has said she will not remain for a second term.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio