* First visit by a U.S. president to former pariah state
* Faces criticism from human rights groups for going too
* Obama denies visit is endorsement of government
* Suu Kyi says beware of a "mirage of success"
* Thousands line the street to greet newly re-elected
By Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason
YANGON, Nov 19 Barack Obama became the first
American president to visit Myanmar on Monday, using a six-hour
trip to balance U.S. 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
"I recognise 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 U.S. 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 -- 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.
STOP THE VIOLENCE
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 Bangladesh and 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 at Yangon 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
Thein Sein, in a letter to U.N. 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".
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, Obama denied 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 U.S. aid programmes in
Myanmar during his visit. An administration official said the
USAID programme would include assistance of $170 million in
total for fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this would be dependent on
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 U.S. 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.