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 democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the home where she was long locked up.
The trip, the first to Myanmar by a serving US president, came as the country’s 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 afterwards in a major address at Yangon University during his visit.
“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, but today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country,” Obama said. “About you. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage.”
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.
Obama removed his shoes during a brief visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies that is the spiritual center of Burmese Buddhism. He later stood side by side with Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest, as the presidential limousine sat parked outside.
Crowds could be heard chanting: “Obama, freedom” in the streets nearby.
Aung San Suu Kyi for her part 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 Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament after the junta made way for a nominally civilian government.
The trip is seen as a political coup for Obama after his election victory 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.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, saying 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.