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Historic US visit: Myanmar welcomes President Obama

Updated On: Nov 21, 2012

On Monday, two jumbo jets carrying President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and their team arrived in Myanmar for a six-hour visit. They were greeted by hundreds of people along Yangon’s streets, many of them waving U.S. flags.

The visit was intended to show support for the reforms put in place by President Thein Sein's government since the end of military rule in November 2010.

Warnings

Some activists have warned that the visit may be too hasty - political prisoners remain behind bars and ethnic conflicts in border areas are unresolved.

On Monday another prisoner amnesty was announced, with about 50 of the 66 inmates freed reportedly political detainees. About 200 political prisoners remain behind bars, activists say.

“There were people in the old regime and there are probably some people in the new government who still fear America,” said U Thant Myint-U, a historian who was in the audience for Mr. Obama’s speech. “They are afraid of what American influence could unleash here.”

Mr. Obama’s visit suggests that the Myanmar government “now has gained a level of confidence,” Mr. Thant Myint-U said.

Some members of the governing party, which is still composed of many former generals of the junta, sought to play down the visit.

“I want to say that America is not the only friend of our nation — China and India are our friends too,” said U Khin Maung Htoo, a member of Parliament with the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Mr. Khin Maung Htoo also said it was inappropriate for Mr. Obama to have met Myanmar’s president in Yangon instead of Naypyidaw, the capital built and conceived by the military. Mr Obama spent about six hours in Myanmar and did not visit the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

Signals of progress

The highlight of Mr Obama’s visit was a speech at Yangon University, which was at the heart of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were violently suppressed by the military regime.

In his speech, Mr. Obama spoke about the changes in Myanmar and offered a “hand of friendship” between two countries that had become “strangers.”
 
He called for an end to communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in the western state of Rakhine that has left more than 100,000 people displaced.

"National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it is necessary to stop the incitement and to stop violence," he said.

Addressing students, Mr Obama said America would help to rebuild Myanmar's economy and could be a partner on its journey forward.

"Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished."

Earlier Mr Obama met Mr Thein Sein, saying the reform process "here in Myanmar... is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities".

Obama then met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest. She thanked the US for its support but warned that difficult times could lie ahead.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said, saying people should not be "lured by a mirage of success".

The US president and his team also made a brief stop at Shwedagon Pagoda, the Yangon landmark that has been at the heart of many key moments in the country's history.

Sanctions eased

President Thein Sein's government came to power after widely criticised polls in November 2010 that saw military rule replaced with a military-backed civilian government.

Since then, his administration has embarked on a reform process. Many - but not all - political prisoners have been freed, censorship has been relaxed and some economic reforms enacted.

In response to the reforms, many Western nations have relaxed sanctions against Myanmar and begun a process of engagement.

But rights groups have cautioned against a rush to embrace Myanmar, warning that political prisoners remain behind bars and ethnic conflicts are unresolved.

After visiting Myanmar, Mr Obama headed to Cambodia to join a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, in a trip that underlines the shift in US foreign policy focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

Report: Obama Receives Warm Welcome in Myanmar [The New York Times, 20 Nov 2012]

Report: US President Obama hails Burma's 'remarkable journey' [BBC NEWS, 19 Nov]