Washington: Hoping to accelerate Myanmar`s transition to democracy, US President Barack Obama on Monday set out on a historic trip to the once-pariah nation, also called Burma.
History was made when Air Force One landed on Myanmar soil on Monday morning and Obama became the first serving US President to visit the long repressed nation
Obama was greeted by tens of thousands of people, including uniformed children, who packed the streets, waving American flags and taking snaps of the US President.
Speaking at the University of Yangon, Obama offered a "hand of friendship" and a lasting US commitment, but not without a moderate admonition.
Obama warned the new civilian government that it must nurture democracy or watch it, and US support, disappear.
In a remarkable shift from US policy, Obama referred to the nation as Myanmar instead of Burma.
Burma is the older name of the South East Asian nation, which is generally mentioned by democracy advocates and the United States government while Myanmar is the name preferred by the former military regime and the new government of the nation.
Obama acknowledged Myanmar`s many democratic shortcomings but said: "The United States of America is with you."
Obama spoke at a university that was once the center of government opposition, and his message was as much a call for Myanmar to continue in its promising steps as it was a tribute to democracy in general. He held up the United States as an example of its triumph and its imperfections.
In a televised national address Obama said that, "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished".
Democratic activist of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, voiced similar opinion when she said that, "The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight".
"Then we have to be very careful that we`re not lured by the mirage of success."
Obama met Suu Kyi in private at her lakeside house, the same place where she spent the last two decades under house arrest.
In what appeared quiet warm a welcome, Obama was seen hugging the long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and lauding her as a personal inspiration.
Earlier, Obama also met Myanmar President Thein Sein, the man instrumental in initiating a slew of reforms in the once repressive nation. Referring to the country`s march towards democracy, Obama said that "This remarkable journey has just begun".
"But," Obama said, "we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities."
The six hour visit by President Barack Obama holds a considerable symolic significance as the US President himself said that his visit to Myanmar marks the next step in a new chapter between the two countries.
After a private meeting with Suu Kyi, Obama said he`s seen encouraging signs of progress in the country in the past year. Those signs, he said, include Suu Kyi`s release from house arrest and her election to parliament.
Earlier the US President had said, "Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected.. 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."
Justifying his visit to the once-shunned nation, Obama said , "This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government. This is an acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."
Obama also said his decision had been guided by talks with Myanmar democracy advocate Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who visited him at the White House in September.
"I`m not somebody who thinks the US should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there`s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country," Obama said.
Obama’s visit marks a significant shift in the relations between Myanmar and the US.
The president`s Asia tour also marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising re-election campaign.
Myanmar`s rapid adoption of democratic reforms has been rewarded by the US lifting of some economic sanctions.
Obama has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
Some human rights groups say Myanmar`s government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, hasn`t done enough to earn a personal visit from Obama.
The White House says Obama will express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar`s western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people — the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya — have been displaced.
The UN has called the Rohingya — who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — among the world`s most persecuted people.
The White House says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.
The president will cap his trip to Myanmar with a speech at Rangoon University, the center of the country`s struggle for independence against Britain and the launching point for many pro-democracy protests.
Having faced years of isolation because of a draconian military rule, Myanmar unleashed a slew of democratic reforms last year marking a significant transition. The democratic shift of the once-pariah state came to the limelight last year after a nominally civilian government took office and began taking steps toward democracy.
With Agency Inputs