Obama arrives in Myanmar, a historic first for an American president: Broader engagement in Asia
The United States president Barack Obama, fresh from his re-election at the November 6 national presidential election, touched down Monday, 19 November morning at the Yangon airport in Myanmar - also known as Burma, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Asian nation.
Mr. Obama was accompanied by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He came down the steps of Air Force One next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in recognition of their final foreign trip together. Mrs. Clinton is ending her tenure as secretary of state soon.
Tens of thousands of people packed the streets to see his motorcade speed through the city. Many of them waved American flags.
The president's stop came between visits to Thailand and Cambodia. In Cambodia he will attend the South East Asian Summit.
After meeting with President Thein Sein, who has taken a bold step forward to move the nation, a dictatorship from 1962 grab of power by General Ne Win from the democratically elected prime minister U Thakin Nu, to democracy, Obama said on Monday the reforms "in Myanmar" could unleash "the incredible potential of this beautiful country."
He said he comes to "extend the hand of friendship" to a nation moving from persecution to peace.
Mr. Obama will also meeting with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest. Several months ago, secretary of state Clinton met her at this residence.
Obama will conclude his visit with a speech at the University of Yangon, praising 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."
Obama has rewarded Myanmar's rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties. The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
The United States on Friday announced the easing of restrictions on imports of most goods from Myanmar, just a day before President Obama leaves on a trip that includes a stop in the former pariah state.
The lifting of the ban, which had been in place for nearly a decade, was made in response to ongoing reforms taken by the government of the country also known as Burma.
"Today's joint actions by the Departments of State and Treasury are intended to support the Burmese government's ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses," the departments said in a statement.
The United States already has eased restrictions on U.S. investment in Myanmar, and resumed normal diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asia nation.
While the United States will issue a waiver and general license to allow the import of most Burmese-made goods, restrictions on the import of jadeite and rubies mined or extracted from Myanmar will remain in place. The government-controlled industries have been linked to human rights abuses of the Burmese people in the past.
"Despite positive changes, the United States remains concerned about corruption, remaining political prisoners, continued military ties to [North Korea], and ethnic conflict," the statement from Treasury and State said.
"This will be an historic visit," National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. "It will be the president speaking to the people of Burma in a clear and full way about the way forward, about the support the United States has for the reform movement, about where Burma can go if it stays on the path to reform, and that can't help but support and enhance the movement toward reform."
In his speech to the Yangon University, Obama recalls a promise he made upon taking office — that the United States would extend a hand if those nations that ruled in fear unclenched their fists.
"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," he said. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must become a shining North Star for all this nation's people."
White House aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama's second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.
China's rise is also at play in Myanmar, which long has aligned itself with Beijing. But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy.
The White House says Obama will express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people — the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya — have been displaced.
The U.N. has called the Rohingya — who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — are said to be among the world's most persecuted people.
Under Thein Sein, the Myanmar government has released hundreds of political prisoners in the past year, part of a series of reforms that have followed decades of repressive military rule. Western governments have responded to the efforts by starting to ease sanctions put in place to pressure the military regime.
Myanmar authorities have also engaged in peace talks with rebel ethnic groups and allowed Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, to successfully participate in special elections for the national parliament in April.
"I think the president's message when he goes is going to be one of welcoming the progress that has taken place, noting the truly historic developments that we've seen over the course of the last year, but also underscoring that more work needs to be done to insure a full transition to civilian rule to ensure a full transition to democracy, and to bring about national reconciliation," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Suu Kyi, a democratic freedom activist who spent 15 years under house arrest, traveled to Washington earlier this year to accept the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.
She was freed from house arrest two years ago and elected to the Myanmar parliament this year, a notable moment in the country's political history.
- Asian Tribune -