Becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit this long-isolated nation, President Obama today extended "the hand of friendship" as the country emerges from five decades of harsh authoritarian rule, but cautioned that the young democracy has "much further to go."
"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," the president told a subdued crowd at a well-maintained auditorium in an otherwise crumbling building at the University of Yangon. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted. As you take these steps, you can draw on your progress."
Showcasing one of the foreign policy accomplishments of his first term, Obama praised the "dramatic transition" that Myanmar has made as he attempts to lock-in the nation's reforms and encourage additional progress.
Obama made history when Air Force One touched down at 9:35 am local time. The president, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was greeted by tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Yangon, including roughly 2,000 school children who stood shoulder-to-shoulder on this muggy day in crisp white shirts and traditional green longyis waving U.S. and Myanmar flags.
Obama met first with reformist President Thein Sein and shared the United States' "belief that the process of reform that [Sein] has taken is one that will move this… country forward," he later told reporters.
The president then made a personal visit to the home of opposition leader, and fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she lived under house arrest before being released two years ago. As the president's motorcade pulled up to the large lakefront stucco house, throngs of onlookers outside the gate chanted "Obama! Obama!" and then, even more forcefully, "Hillary! Hillary!"
The petite Suu Kyi and Obama greeted each other with their hands making the traditional sign of prayer and a nod of the head before shaking hands. Suu Kyi then turned back to the car looking for Clinton and the two women embraced eagerly like old friends.
"One of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world," Obama told reporters after their visit. "Here through so many difficult years is where she displayed such unbreakable courage. It's here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied."
Speaking at the university, the culmination of his visit, with Suu Kyi and Clinton sitting in the first row, the president warned that "no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation," one of only two lines in his speech that received applause from the crowd.
"You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to transform cease-fires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace where conflict lingers," he said.
Obama's visit, a brief six-hour stop on his whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, is seen as a symbolic validation of the country's changes. Human rights groups, however, have said the president's trip is premature because the government continues to hold political prisoners and human rights abuses are ongoing. In his remarks, the president noted that to protect freedom, those in power must accept constraints. "That is how you must reach for the future you deserve - a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many, and the law is stronger than any leader," he said.
This journey to Myanmar is a first, but also a poignant last for Clinton. In Yangon, she came down the air-stairs alongside President Obama for what the White House calls her final trip with him as Secretary of State, her final official ride on Air force One as the architect of his foreign policy. Clinton has said she will not remain for a second term.