YANGON — President Barack Obama urged Myanmar Monday to hasten its “remarkable” reforms on a historic visit during which he was feted by huge crowds and met 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 regime freed dozens more political prisoners to burnish its reform credentials and after the United States 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 whirlwind 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”, added Obama, who is on his foreign trip since winning re-election this month.
“But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country. 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 centre of Burmese Buddhism.
He later stood 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, as the presidential limousine sat parked outside.
Crowds could be heard chanting “Obama, freedom” in the streets nearby.
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 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 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, 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.
Obama used his speech to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was “no excuse for violence against innocent people”.
Two major outbreaks of violence since June between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
Most of those who fled their homes were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have faced decades of discrimination.
“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, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” Obama said.
The setting for the speech was 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.
Myanmar unveiled a series of new pledges on human rights ahead of Obama’s visit, vowing to review prisoner cases in line with “international standards” and open its jails to the Red Cross.
Activists said the regime also freed at least 44 political prisoners in an amnesty that coincided with his trip, but demanded more action.
“The government must release all political prisoners instead of using them as bargaining chips for visits like this [Obama’s],” Thailand-based activist Bo Kyi said, adding that more than 200 convicted dissidents remain in Myanmar’s jails.
Obama flew on to Cambodia to attend a regional summit gathering the leaders of 18 countries.
During the two-day East Asia Summit, he is scheduled to hold talks with the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda.