U.S. President Barack Obama has met with Burmese President Thein Sein and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the country's main city of Rangoon, in the first visit to the country by a serving U.S. president.
After an hour-long meeting Monday, Mr. Obama, with President Thein Sein at his side, told reporters that the process of democratic and economic reform in the Southeast Asian nation can lead to incredible development opportunities. He added that he is looking forward to visiting again “sometime in the future.”
Mr. Obama later met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation's leading democracy activist, at her home in Rangoon. The two Nobel peace laureates held a press conference after the meeting, and Mr. Obama told reporters he's seen encouraging signs in the country in the past year, including Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her election to parliament.
However, the Burmese democracy leader warned about the risk of what she called a “mirage of success.” She said the most difficult time in any transition is when the people think success is in sight.
Mr. Obama delivers a speech at the University of Rangoon before traveling on to Cambodia for meetings with Southeast Asian leaders at the annual ASEAN summit.
President Obama has said his trip to Burma does not represent an endorsement of the government, but is rather an acknowledgement of the political reform process under way in the country.
The president said there has been a stated commitment to further political reform in Burma, which he says deserves encouragement.
“But I do not think anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be. On the other hand if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we would be waiting an awful long time.”
He said the goal of his visit is to highlight the progress that has been made, and also to address the steps Burma needs to take in the future.
After his meeting with President Thein Sein, Mr. Obama used the name “Myanmar” instead of Burma in his remarks to reporters. “Burma” is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy movement and it is the name that is officially used in Washington. Since 1989, the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name “Myanmar” as the conventional name for their state. The U.S. Government did not adopt the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw. Mr. Obama did not say why he used the term “Myanmar” Monday.
The trip underscores Mr. Obama's increased focus on Asia as he tries to fulfill his pledge to strengthen the U.S. economy during his second four-year term in office. The Obama administration has said American foreign policy and engagement will “pivot” toward Asia in the future.
The Burmese government has recently begun making democratic reforms, but some human-rights groups have cautioned that it is not yet a fully free country.
The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch told VOA the president should have waited to travel to Burma until the country makes more progress in restoring basic freedoms.
Mr. Obama also is attending a meeting of regional leaders from ASEAN in Cambodia, another destination where he is expected to raise concerns about long-standing human-rights problems. The president is expected to urge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to hold free and fair elections and end land seizures.
Mr. Obama spoke in Bangkok during a news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Sunday. Thailand was the first stop on a three-nation Asian visit in his first overseas trip since winning re-election nearly two weeks ago.