The Straits Times
Published on Nov 19, 2012

Obama touches down in Myanmar, opens historic visit


YANGON (AFP) - Huge crowds greeted Mr Barack Obama in Myanmar on Monday morning on the first visit by a serving United States president to the former pariah state to encourage a string of startling political reforms.

In scenes that would have been unthinkable until recently, Mr Obama's motorcade passed tens of thousands of people lining the road from Yangon's airport into the heart of the ramshackle city, after a red-carpet welcome for Air Force One.

Waving US and Myanmar flags, some chanted "America". One poster read "Legend, hero of our world".

Mr Obama met with the country's reformist President Thein Sein at the city's regional parliament building, hoping to embolden the former general to deepen the country's march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.

He will later use a major speech at Yangon University to hail "the flickers of progress" in Myanmar, the White House said.

"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," Mr Obama will say, according to excerpts of his address. "But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go."

The setting for the speech will be rich in symbolism as the university was the scene of past episodes of pro-democratic student unrest, including mass demonstrations in 1988 that ended in a bloody military crackdown.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," Mr Obama was to say. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted."

In a nod to a recent wave of deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, Mr Obama will urge Myanmar to "draw on diversity as a strength, not a weakness".

Mr Obama will later on Monday stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.

The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government - albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.

US officials said Mr Obama would announce a US$170 million (S$209 million) development aid pledge to Myanmar to coincide with the formal opening of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Myanmar, which was suspended for years over the junta's repression of the democracy movement.

The money, spread over a two-year period, will target projects in civil society designed to build democratic institutions and improve education.