YANGON, Myanmar President Barack Obama began a historic visit to Myanmar today, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian nation in hopes that his high-profile presence will encourage the government's shift from military rule to fledgling democracy.
Obama landed in the country once known as Burma this morning local time, the start of a quick stop in which he'll meet with President Thein Sein before visiting with famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the home where she faced house arrest for years before being elected to Parliament.
The president also will deliver a speech at the University of Yangon, a recently reopened school that has been the center of political movements in the nation for decades, urging Myanmar to do more to give all citizens a voice.
"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," he plans to say, according to excerpts released by aides in advance. "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."
Some human rights organizations criticized the president for traveling to a nation that still is engaged in ethnic fighting. On Sunday, Obama defended his trip, saying political prisoners have been released and that opposition leader Suu Kyi, who was imprisoned for nearly 15 years until 2010, now serves in the government.
"I think it's important to recognize this is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," Obama said in Thailand. "This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even two years ago nobody would (have seen)."
"There is an articulated commitment to further political reform. If we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting a long time."
Obama said that the goals of his trip included not just highlighting the progress that has been made but also to show the much greater progress that needs to be made.
"The country has a long way to go. I'm not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there's an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country," he said.
A senior administration official speaking on background told reporters that the United States is pledging $170 million over two years as part of a re-established USAID mission in Myanmar. In return, the Myanmar government has agreed to a host of changes, including ending its military relationship with North Korea. Myanmar was one of the only few remaining military partners the North Koreans could count on.
"This is the beginning of our mission within Burma," the official said. "But at the same time, these are going to be partnerships. And in order to continue to implement these programs, the Burmese are going to have to continue to take steps."
Myanmar is one stop on Obama's whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, part of a second-term focus on the fast-growing region the president said could strengthen the U.S. economy and its security.
"The United States is and always will be a Pacific nation," Obama said at a news conference with Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Sunday. "The Asian Pacific shapes so much of our security and prosperity ahead, and it's critical for creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. That's why I've made restoring America's engagement in this region a top priority as president."
After the brief six-hour visit in Myanmar, Obama heads to Cambodia for a summit with Asian leaders. He returns to Washington early Wednesday.
In addition to meeting with Thailand's prime minister on Sunday, Obama also met with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, an iconic figure who has ruled the nation for more than half a century. The 84-year-old Massachusetts-born king, the longest-serving monarch in the world, is in poor health and has lived at a hospital for several years.
At a dinner for Obama, Shinawatra, the prime minister, said: "We will continue to build on a strong foundation in expanding our trade and investment to promote growth and create jobs. The world is changing fast, and only through trust, partnership, can we ensure peace and prosperity for both nations."
Since World War II, the United States and Thailand have significantly expanded both diplomatic and economic relations, though recently the Thai government refused to allow NASA to use an airfield for monitoring atmospheric conditions. But Thailand did announce its intention to join a new trade agreement the Trans Pacific Partnership that will include environmental and labor standards.
"We felt it was very important to begin this trip by visiting a U.S. ally," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor. "Allies are the cornerstone of our rebalancing effort in Asia."