Obama visits an emerging Myanmar, promises support

PETER BAKER

President Obama journeyed to this storied tropical outpost of jade and jungles on Monday to "extend the hand of friendship" as a land long tormented by repression and poverty begins to throw off military rule and emerge from decades of isolation.

Obama arrived here as the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar with the hope of solidifying the stunning changes that have transformed this Southeast Asian country and encouraging additional progress toward a more democratic system. With the promise of financial assistance, Obama vowed to "support you every step of the way."

The president was greeted on a mild, muggy day by tens of thousands of people lining the road from the airport — and by further promises of reform by the government, which announced a series of specific commitments regarding the release of political prisoners and the end of ethnic violence. Although Obama stayed just six hours, his visit was seen here as a validation of a new era.

He met at the government headquarters with President Thein Sein, who has ushered in change, and then made a personal pilgrimage to the home of the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was confined for most of two decades before her release from house arrest two years ago. Overlooking the manicured lawn and well-tended garden outside the elegant two-storey lakeside house, the president celebrated the Nobel-winning dissident as an "icon of democracy" who inspired the world, then kissed and embraced her.

Still, Aung San Suu Kyi, who according to human rights activists privately counseled Americans against Obama making the trip out of concern that it was premature, sounded a note of caution. "We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success."

While local leaders attribute the changes so far to internal factors and decisions far removed from policies set in Washington, Obama was eager to claim a measure of credit and drank in the adulation of the crowd. Outside the gates of Suu Kyi's home, thousands of people gathered, chanting, "Obama, Obama!" as the motorcade passed.

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