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YANGON, Myanmar — President Obama arrived in Myanmar today, the first visit by a serving U.S. president to the Southeast Asian country, which is opening up after a half century of military rule.
Air Force One touched down in Yangon, where the President was scheduled to meet with Myanmar President Thein Sein and democracy advocate and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hundreds of children and young people dressed in white shirts and green sarongs, many of them wearing traditional cheek makeup smears and holding small U.S. flags, lined both sides of the road for more than half a mile heading out of the airport.
Mr. Obama was scheduled to close his visit with a speech at Rangoon University, where he planned to praise the country’s progress toward democracy but urge further reforms.
“Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected,” the President said in speech excerpts released by the White House. “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.”
Mr. Obama’s visit was to last just six hours, but it carries significant symbolism, reflecting a remarkable turnaround in the two countries’ relationship.
He has led efforts to re-establish ties with Myanmar following its move toward democracy.
Some human rights groups, however, had criticized the visit as a premature reward for a country that still holds political prisoners and is struggling to stem ethnic violence.
Mr. Obama’s trek to Myanmar is meant 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 last year.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his landmark visit, Mr. Obama denied he was going to Myanmar to offer his “endorsement” or that his trip was premature.
Instead, he insisted his intention was to acknowledge that Myanmar, also known as Burma, had opened the door to democratic change but there was still much more to do.
“I don’t think anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” Mr. Obama said Sunday at a joint news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
“I’m not somebody who thinks the United States 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,” Mr. Obama said.
The administration has bet heavily on Myanmar’s continued commitment to reform, appointing Ambassador Derek Mitchell to the country in June and sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a visit last December.
Under President Thein Sein, Myanmar has begun releasing political prisoners and easing restrictions on the media.
Ms. Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, was freed from house arrest and was allowed to run for a seat in parliament. She was elected.
But more than 200 political prisoners remain in custody and the government continues to wage a brutal campaign against insurgents in Kachin state.
The government also has been accused of not doing enough to stop, and of even tacitly encouraging, the outbreak of violence against Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite imagery showed extensive destruction of homes in an area where Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic group, live.
The rights group said a wave of violence and arson in the region last month was carried out with the support of state security forces and local government officials.
Mr. Obama praised the government’s reforms while saying that more work needed to be done.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” he said. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”
State television in Yangon reported that Thein Sein had ordered the release of 66 prisoners in advance of Mr. Obama’s arrival, but it was not clear whether any of them were political prisoners, the Associated Press reported.
A similar release of more than 450 prisoners late last week disappointed human rights activists because almost all of those freed were petty criminals rather than those locked up for political activities.
“If we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is that we’d be waiting an awful long time,” Mr. Obama said of Myanmar. “One of the goals of this trip is to highlight progress that has been made, but also voice that much greater progress needs to be made in the future.”
Mr. Obama opened his first post-election foreign trip by paying a visit to Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyedaj, 84, a revered figure who is severely ill and hospitalized, and touring the Wat Pho Royal Monastery before joining Ms. Yingluck in a formal welcome dinner at the Government House.
The President lavished praise on his host country, saying Thailand’s 180-year relationship with the United States makes it “our oldest ally” in Asia.
The Obama Administration is using the Asia trip, which includes a final stop in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, as another step in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing influence in the region.
During the news conference, Mr. Obama responded to a question about whether Beijing offered Thailand a less messy path toward prosperity than politically gridlocked Washington.
“Democracy is a little messier than alternative systems of government, but that’s because democracy allows everybody to have a voice,” Mr. Obama said.
Mrs. Clinton, who was in Bangkok with Mr. Obama, flew with him aboard Air Force One into the historic former capital of Yangon today.
She has said she will leave her post as soon as a successor is found and this is their final foreign trip together, White House officials said.
White House aides said the President would announce today that the United States will reestablish in Myanmar a U.S. Agency for International Development mission and offer the country up to $170 million in new foreign aid over the next two years that would be conditional on the government continuing toward democratic reforms.