In a Changing Myanmar, Vows of Support From a Visiting President

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YANGON, Myanmar -- President Obama journeyed to this storied tropical outpost of jade and jungles on 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.

Mr. Obama arrived here as the first sitting American 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, Mr. 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. Although Mr. Obama stayed just six hours, his visit was seen here as a validation of a new era.

He met at the government headquarters with President Thein Sein, who has ushered in change, and then made a personal pilgrimage to the home of the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was confined for most of two decades before her release from house arrest two years ago. Overlooking the manicured lawn and well-tended garden outside the elegant two-story lakeside house, the president celebrated the Nobel-winning dissident as an "icon of democracy" who inspired the world, then kissed and embraced her.

Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who according to human rights activists privately counseled Americans against Mr. Obama's making the trip out of concern that it was premature, sounded a note of caution. "The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she warned. "Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success."

While local leaders attribute the changes so far to internal factors and decisions far removed from policies set in Washington, Mr. Obama was eager to claim a measure of credit and drank in the adulation of the crowd. Outside the gates of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's home, thousands of people gathered, chanting, "Obama, Obama!" and crowding his motorcade as it passed.

Mr. Obama has tried to play nursemaid to the opening of Myanmar, formerly and still known by many as Burma, by sending the first American ambassador in 22 years, easing sanctions and meeting with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House. On Monday, he announced the return of the United States Agency for International Development along with $170 million for projects over the next two years.

In a small gesture during his meeting with Mr. Thein Sein, Mr. Obama even called the country Myanmar, the term favored by the generals who renamed it, even though the United States government officially prefers Burma. The president noted that in his inaugural address in 2009 he had vowed to reach out to those "willing to unclench your fist" and hailed Myanmar for responding.

"So today, I have come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship," Mr. Obama said in a speech 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 be strengthened, they must become a shining north star for all this nation's people," he said.

Although human rights activists criticized him for visiting while hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up and violence rages through parts of the country, Mr. 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, a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many," he said at the university. "You need to reach for a future where the law is stronger than any single leader."

The audience of 1,500, with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seated next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the front row, listened attentively but quietly. It interrupted with applause at just two points, once when Mr. Obama said that "no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation" and again when he talked of the duties of being a citizen.

The choice of venue for his centerpiece speech spoke to the incomplete nature of change here. The university once was the engine of protest, fueling uprisings by students, including one in 1988 that was put down violently by the military and opened the modern era of repression.

In recent years, the university has fallen into disrepair, its campus largely empty except for graduate students and the building where Mr. Obama spoke decaying and blackened on the outside. In recent days, the government scrambled to spruce up the campus before Mr. Obama's arrival, leaving him to speak in a repainted hall addressing a university that is not functioning in any real way.

Still, change has come more quickly than anyone imagined. Under Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, many political prisoners have been released and media restrictions have been eased. Ms. Aung San 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 was the second stop on Mr. Obama's three-country swing through Southeast Asia. He spent Sunday in Bangkok, visiting America's oldest ally in the region, and headed from here 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.

The embrace of Myanmar fits into a larger effort by the Obama administration to reorient American 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 natural resources here.

For Mr. 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 revolutions in the Middle East have now become bogged down in more ambiguous outcomes, as in Libya, where Islamic extremists attacked a United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.

None of that anti-American sentiment was on display here Monday. By the time he left six hours later, the crowds had begun to thin and the country began to look ahead to a future that has yet to be written.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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