Burma is on a “remarkable journey” of reform that has much further to go, Barack Obama said as he made the first visit to the South East Asian nation by a serving US president.
A desire for change had been met by an agenda of reform, he said, and he was there to extend a “hand of friendship”.
But, in a speech at Rangoon University, he said recent violence in Rakhine state had to be addressed.
Crowds of people, some waving US flags, lined the streets as he arrived.
The visit is intended to show support for the reforms put in place by Thein Sein’s government since the end of military rule in November 2010.
Activists have cautioned 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 two-thirds of the 66 inmates to be freed reportedly political detainees.
‘Flickers of progress‘
Mr Obama is spending six hours in Burma but will not visit the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
Campaigners are asking why such an important visit had to happen so soon, apparently before Mr Obama’s people had secured any concessions from the Burmese government”
- Perils of embracing Burma
The highlight of his visit was a speech at Rangoon University, which was at the heart of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were violently suppressed by the military regime.
Addressing students, he said America would help to rebuild Burma’s economy and could be a partner on its journey forward.
Referencing his 20 January 2009 inauguration speech in which he pledged the US would extend a hand to any country that was willing to unclench its fist, he said : “Today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.”
“But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go.”
“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.”
He called for an end to communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state that has left more than 100,000 people displaced. They are mostly Muslim Rohingyas who are stateless and face severe discrimination in Burma.
Reform in Burma
- 7 Nov 2010: First polls in 20 years
- 13 Nov: Aung San Suu Kyi freed from house arrest
- 30 Mar 2011: Transfer of power to new government complete
- 19 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi meets President Thein Sein
- 13 Oct: New labour laws allowing unions passed
- 23 Dec: Suu Kyi-led NLD registers as political party
- 13 Jan: Highest-profile political prisoners freed
- 1 April: NLD wins 43 out of 45 seats in polls, generally seen as fair
- 23 April: EU suspends most sanctions for a year
- 29 May: Aung San Suu Kyi leaves Burma for the first time in 24 years, for a visit to Thailand
- 9 July: NLD lawmakers take their seats in parliament
- Timeline: Reforms in Burma
- In pictures: Obama in Burma
“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.
Earlier Mr Obama met Thein Sein, saying the reform process “here in Myanmar… is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities”.
He used the country name preferred by the government – it is not clear whether this represents a policy shift.
He 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 Rangoon landmark that has been at the heart of many key moments in the country’s history.
Mr Obama is being accompanied by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who returns to Burma almost a year after her first visit.
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 – to the surprise of many – 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.
Ms Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest shortly after the polls. Her NLD party, which boycotted the elections, has since rejoined the political process. It now has a small presence in parliament, after a landslide win in by-elections deemed generally free and fair in April.
In response, many Western nations have relaxed sanctions against Burma and begun a process of engagement.
But rights groups have cautioned against a rush to embrace the South East Asian nation, warning that political prisoners remain behind bars and ethnic conflicts are unresolved.
After visiting Burma, Mr Obama will head 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.