Obama praises steps toward democracy in historic Myanmar visit

Updated
 
President Barack Obama and Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speak to the media during a brief joint press conference at her residence in Yangon,...
President Barack Obama and Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speak to the media during a brief joint press conference at her residence in Yangon,...
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP - Getty Images

President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar Monday where he met separately with both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Standing in front of the home of Suu Kyi, who was imprisoned for nearly two decades before being released by the military government in 2010 as the country transitioned to civilian rule, the president sounded an optimistic note on the country’s move toward democracy.

“We’ve seen some very encouraging progress including Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and election to parliament; the release of political prisoners; lifting restrictions on the press; and new laws to expand labor rights and eliminate the use of child soldiers,” he said. “At my direction, the United States has responded to support these reforms including the easing of sanctions.”

Yet, Obama noted that “real democracy requires having different branches of government check and balance each other.”

“I applaud your efforts in that regard…Our goal is to sustain the momentum for democratization,” he said.

Suu Kyi praised the United States for its “staunch support” of the democracy movement in the country formerly known as Burma. “We have to be very careful that we are not mired by a mirage of success,” she added.

President Sein, a former military commander, also praised the president for his visit and voiced optimism for the two countries continued relations. “We will continue to cooperate with the United States,” including in the areas of “education and health…services for the people of Myanmar,” he said.

Ahead of the trip, the president cautioned that his visit did not mean progress was complete in Myanmar, which only ended military rule last year. “Nobody is under the illusion that Burma has arrived,” he said, using the country name preferred by Democracy activists, including Suu Kyi.

During remarks at Yangon University in Myanmar, the president noted his continued willingness to work with the fledgling government.

“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear. I said in my inauguration address, we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said. “Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip. Under president Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied the president on his Southeast Asia tour, which included a stop in Myanmar, but also Cambodia and Thailand.

The president praised Clinton, who will step down from her position soon, for setting an example in her work with the country. She was the first U.S. official in nearly 50 years to visit the country in 2011.

“I could not be more grateful not only for your service Hillary but also for the powerful message that you and Aung San Suu Kyi send about the importance of women and men everywhere embracing and promoting democratic values and human rights,” he said.

Obama praises steps toward democracy in historic Myanmar visit

Updated