Aung San Suu Kyi

Obama praises Myanmar's reforms on landmark visit

On historic visit, US president urges leaders to build on reforms and end sectarian unrest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 10:48am

US President Barack Obama urged Myanmar yesterday to hasten its "remarkable" reforms on a historic visit during which he was feted by huge crowds and met Aung San Suu Kyi at the home where she was locked up.

The trip, the first to Myanmar by a serving US president, came as the regime freed dozens more political prisoners to burnish its reform credentials and after the US joined other Western powers in relaxing its sanctions.

After a red-carpet welcome for Air Force One, Obama met Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein and called on the former general to speed up the country's march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.

"Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip," Obama said in a major address at Yangon University before hundreds of students, officials and former generals. "This remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go," he said. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must be strengthened."

Over the past few decades, "our two countries became strangers", said Obama, who is on his first foreign trip since winning re-election this month. "But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country. About you. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage."

Thein Sein said 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 said.

Obama's motorcade passed tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters - some chanting "America" - lining the streets of Yangon, the backdrop for several bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.

Obama later stood side by side with democracy icon Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest. Suu Kyi sounded a note of caution about the sweeping changes. "The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said. "We have to be very careful that we're not lured by the mirage of success."

The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will strengthen Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government.

Obama has stressed his visit is not an "endorsement" of the regime but "an acknowledgement" of the reform process.

Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.

Obama used his speech to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was "no excuse for violence against innocent people".

Two major outbreaks of violence since June between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced. Most of those who fled their homes were stateless Rohingya Muslims.

"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, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do," Obama said.

Hours later, Obama made history for a second time when he became the first serving US president to set foot in Cambodia, a country once known for its Khmer Rouge "killing fields".

Unlike the visit to Myanmar, the White House has made clear Obama is only in Cambodia to attend an East Asia Summit and said the visit should not be seen as an endorsement of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government he has led since the 1980s. US officials said a meeting between Obama and Hun Sen was a tense encounter dominated by the US president voicing concerns about Cambodia's human rights record. He specifically raised the lack of free and fair elections, the detention of political prisoners and land seizures, officials said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters