Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi

 

Barack Obama became the first serving US president to visit Burma today, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform.

Mr Obama, who was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the former capital Rangoon, met President Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I've shared with him the fact that I recognise this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey," Mr Obama, with Thein Sein at his side, told reporters after their talks.

"But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Burma that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities," he added, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than Burma, which is used in the United States.

Mr Thein Sein, speaking in Burmese with an interpreter translating his remarks, responded that the two sides would move forward, "based on mutual trust, respect and understanding".

"During our discussions, we also reached agreement for the development of democracy in Burma and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards," he added.

Mr Obama's Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, is aimed at showing how serious he is about shifting the US strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The so-called "Asia pivot" is also meant to counter China's rising influence.

The trip to Burma is also intended to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement; its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.

Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving American and Burmese flags, lined Mr Obama's route from the airport, cheering him as he went by.

Mr Obama met fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ms Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and is now a lawmaker, at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest.

Addressing reporters afterwards, Ms Suu Kyi thanked him for supporting the political reform process. But, speaking so softly she was barely audible at times, she cautioned that the most difficult time was "when we think that success is in sight".

"Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people," she said.

Mr Obama recalled Ms Suu Kyi's years of captivity and said she was "an icon of democracy who has inspired people not just in this country but around the world".

He said: "Today marks the next step in a new chapter between the United States and Burma."

Before he left, the two embraced and he kissed her on the cheek.

Earlier, Mr Obama made an unscheduled stop at the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, where he, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.

The United States has softened sanctions and removed a ban on most imports from Burma in response to reforms already undertaken, but it has set conditions for the full normalisation of relations, including efforts to end ethnic conflict.

In recent months, sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine has killed at least 167 people.

Many in Burma consider the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and the government does not recognise them as citizens.

A Reuters investigation into the wave of sectarian assaults painted a picture of organised attacks against the Muslim community.

"For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people," Mr Obama told a packed audience for a speech at Yangon University.

"The Rohingya ... hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it's necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence," he said.

Mr Thein Sein, in a letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon last week, promised to tackle the root causes of the problem, and Mr Obama said he welcomed "the government's commitment to address the issues of injustice, and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship".

Some human rights groups had objected to the visit to Burma, saying Mr Obama was rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job that was incomplete.

Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his visit, Mr Obama denied he was going to offer his "endorsement" or that his trip was premature.

Aides said Mr Obama was determined to "lock in" the democratic changes under way in Burma but would press for further action, including the freeing of all political prisoners.

A senior US official said Mr Obama would announce the resumption of US aid programmes in Burma during his visit, anticipating assistance of $170 million in fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this, too, would be dependent on further reforms.

In a move clearly timed to show goodwill, the authorities began to release dozens more political detainees today, including Myint Aye, arguably the most prominent dissident left in its gulag.

Despite human rights concerns, the White House sees Burma as a legacy-building success story of Mr Obama's policy of seeking engagement with US enemies. In his Rangoon speech, he appealed to North Korea to take a similar path.

"To the leadership of North Korea, I've offered a choice: let go of your nuclear weapons, and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you'll find an extended hand from the United States of America," he said.

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