Obama feted on historic Myanmar visit


US President Barack Obama and Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi walk together during their meeting at her home in Yangon .Pic: REUTERS

Myanmar: Huge crowds greeted Barack Obama in Myanmar Monday on the first visit by a serving US president to the former pariah state, a high-stakes trip aimed at encouraging "flickers" of democratic progress.

In once unthinkable scenes, 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.

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

He will later use a major speech at Yangon University to urge the country not to extinguish "the flickers of progress" seen to date, the White House said.

"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," Obama will say, according to excerpts of his address. "But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go."

The setting for the speech will be rich in symbolism. The university was the scene of past episodes of pro-democratic student unrest, including mass demonstrations in 1988 that ended in a bloody military crackdown.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," Obama was to say. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted."

In a nod to a recent wave of deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, Obama will urge Myanmar to "draw on diversity as a strength, not a weakness".

Two major outbreaks of violence since June between Muslims and Buddhists have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims who have faced decades of discrimination.

Obama paid a brief visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies that is the spiritual centre of Burmese Buddhism.

He will later Monday stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.

Now she regularly welcomes visiting dignitaries and foreign media there.
The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government.

The trip is seen as a political coup for Obama -- albeit one with risks -- and a major boost for Thein Sein, who has faced resistance from hardliners within his regime to the rapid political changes.

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

In his one-hour meeting with Obama, Thein Sein recognised "disappointments and obstacles" in relations with Washington over the past two decades, but stressed his commitment to improving ties.

Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that 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.

In an effort to burnish its reform credentials, Myanmar unveiled a raft of new pledges on human rights ahead of the visit, vowing to review prisoner cases in line with "international standards" and open its jails to the Red Cross.

The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions, and officials said Obama would announce a $170 million development aid pledge during his visit.

His trip to Asia, coming less than a fortnight after his re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast-emerging region he sees as vital to its future.

Obama fever has swept Myanmar's biggest city Yangon, with the president's image emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and even graffiti-covered walls.

"America is a powerful country. Obama's visit will bring change to our nation," said 19-year-old law student Kaung San.

Later on Monday Obama will fly to Cambodia for a likely tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.

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