Yangon, Myanmar: President Barack Obama journeyed to this storied tropical outpost of pagodas and jungles Monday to "extend the hand of friendship" as a land long tormented by repression and poverty begins to throw off military rule and emerge from decades of isolation.
Obama arrived as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar with the hope of solidifying the stunning changes that have transformed this Southeast Asian country and encouraging additional progress toward a more democratic system. With the promise of more financial assistance, Obama vowed to "support you every step of the way."
The president was greeted on a mild, muggy day by tens of thousands of people lining the road from the airport - and by further promises of reform by the government, which announced a series of specific commitments regarding the release of political prisoners and the end of ethnic violence. While Obama planned to stay just six hours, his visit was seen here as a validation of a new era.
He made a point of meeting at the government headquarters with President Thein Sein and also planned a personal pilgrimage to the home of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was confined under house arrest for most of two decades before her release two years ago. Amid the manicured lawn and well-tended garden outside the elegant two-story lakeside house, the president and the Nobel-winning dissident planned to stand side by side celebrating change that once seemed unimaginable.
While local leaders attribute the changes so far to internal factors and decisions, Obama was eager to claim a measure of credit. He has played nursemaid to the opening of Myanmar, formerly and still known by many as Burma, by sending the first U.S. ambassador in 22 years, easing sanctions and meeting with Suu Kyi in Washington.
Later Monday he was to announce the return of the U.S. Agency for International Development along with $170 million for projects over the next two years, noting that in his inaugural address he had vowed to reach out to those "willing to unclench your fist."
"So today, I have come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship," read the text of prepared remarks to be delivered at the University of Yangon. He promised to "help rebuild an economy" and develop new institutions that can be sustained. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished - they must become a shining north star for all this nation's people."
Although human rights activists criticized his visit as premature because of remaining political prisoners and unsettled violence racking parts of the country, Obama used the occasion to nudge Myanmar to move further. He noted that democracy is about constraints on power, pointing to his own limits as president.
"That is how you must reach for the future you deserve," he said in the prepared remarks, "a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many and the law is stronger than any leader, where no child is made to be a soldier and no woman is exploited, where national security is strengthened by a military that serves under civilians and a constitution guarantees that only those who are elected by the people may govern."
Under Thein Sein, a former general, many political prisoners have been released and media restrictions have been eased. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to run in elections and she won a seat in parliament. Even before Air Force One landed here, Thein Sein offered a further gesture.
His office announced that the government would set up a process to review the fate of remaining political prisoners by the end of the year, allow international human rights organizations more access to prisons and conflict zones and take "decisive action" to stop violence against the country's minority Muslim population.
More than 200 political prisoners remain in custody, and the government has waged a brutal campaign against insurgents in Kachin state. Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite imagery showed violence, arson and extensive destruction of homes in Rohingya Muslim areas in Arakan state by ethnic Arakans in October, which it said was carried out with support of state security forces and local government officials.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said that if the promises Thein Sein announced Monday were kept, it would "be a huge step in the right direction for the people" and future of Myanmar, although he maintained it could have been achieved without rewarding the government with a presidential visit so soon.
During a stop in Thailand on Sunday, Obama defended his decision to travel to Myanmar. "This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," he said. "This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."
He added: "I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time."
Myanmar is the second stop on Obama's three-country swing through Southeast Asia. He spent Sunday in Bangkok, visiting America's oldest ally in the region, and planned to head next to Cambodia for summit meetings with leaders from throughout the region. It will also be the first time an American president has visited that country, but there are few of the same stirrings of reform in Cambodia, which is dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander.
Even in Thailand, considered the most modern and sophisticated of the three countries on Obama's itinerary, the state of the country's political system has been precarious, particularly since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister last year, and Obama praised her for her support of democracy. Human rights groups, however, still identify problems including security force abuses, restrictions on free speech and the failure to protect a large population of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers.
Obama made no mention of that in his remarks to reporters in Bangkok and addressed it only when a Thai reporter asked about problems with freedom in his country. The president offered no criticism of his host.
"Democracy is not something that is static," he said. "It's something that we constantly have to work on."
The embrace of Myanmar fits into a larger effort by the Obama administration to focus U.S. foreign policy more toward Asia and to engage the countries on China's periphery at a time of nervousness in the region about Beijing's increasing assertiveness. Myanmar was for years locked solidly in China's orbit, but its move toward the West in the last two years has been driven at least partly by resentment of Beijing's rapacious exploitation of its natural resources.
For Obama, it also represents one of the few relatively unvarnished success stories in the democratic movement that he can point to during his time in office. By contrast, the Arab Spring set of revolutions in the Middle East have now become bogged down in more ambiguous outcomes as in Libya, where Islamic extremists attacked a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September.
None of that anti-American sentiment was on display here Monday. He was greeted at the airport by a delegation swathed in greens, purples and turquoise, a young girl presenting a bouquet and a military honor guard in white dress uniforms with red trim. Some who watched his motorcade pass waved American flags and chanted, "America." Thus began a visit during which Obama and his hosts were to focus on progress with the understanding that hard work still remained.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service