Yangon, Myanmar — President Obama on Monday became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, a once-secretive nation emerging from decades of authoritarian rule.
Obama is expected to urge the Southeast Asian country’s government to stay the course toward democratic reforms.
The White House has billed his visit as a celebration of the recent shift by the government of President Thein Sein, symbolized most publicly by the release of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after years of house arrest.
But the visit has also met with criticism from human rights advocates who argue that the accolades are premature and the presidential visit too big a reward for Myanmar’s government. Hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed and an ethnic conflict involving a minority group has erupted in recent violence.
Obama administration officials released excerpts of a speech Obama plans to give at Yangon University.
“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,” the speech says.
The remarks include an indirect reference to the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority not granted citizenship. Only Myanmar can define its citizens, but Obama’s speech holds up the U.S. as a model.
“I say this because my own country, and my own life, have taught me this,” Obama says in the excerpts. “We have tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede, and the lines between races and tribe fade away.”
Obama’s six-hour visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was expected to include meetings with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.
Obama planned to praise the iconic dissident, now a member of parliament and leader of the opposition party, for her “fierce dignity.”
“She proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart,” he says, according to the excerpts.
Obama planned to highlight the reforms — recognition of Suu Kyi’s party, release of some political prisoners, a ban on forced labor and a series of cease-fires that halted ethnic violence in some areas.
Obama suggested that his policies toward Myanmar, which opened diplomatic engagement after years of being cut off from the U.S., were at least partly responsible for the changes. And he sought to use Myanmar as a validation of his engagement strategy elsewhere.
“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’” the excerpts say. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship. America now has an ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the world.”
Myanmar is rich in rubber, timber and other potential exports. It also stands to play a key role in Obama’s effort to keep China’s influence in the region in check.
The visit to Myanmar is part of a three-day tour of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, a trip aimed at drawing attention to Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.