In a historic visit to Burma on Sunday, President Obama praised the nation’s fledgling steps towards democratization, pledging that “America will support you every step of the way.”
Obama became the first sitting president to visit the country, also known as Myanmar, meeting with President Thein Sein and later opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
But the administration was careful to note that the visit was not an endorsement of the military leaders who have controlled Burma for decades, but rather an encouragement for them to continue reforms.
In an address to students at Yangon University, Obama said he had come to the southeast Asian nation to “extend the hand of friendship.”
“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,” Obama said. “A civilian now leads the government, and a parliament is asserting itself.”
The president pledged that the U.S. would continue to provide financial aid to ease Burma’s transition and “help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people.”
But Obama also stressed that Burma’s military needed to continue the process of democratization.
“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished -- they must be strengthened,” said the president.
During his visit, Obama also met with pro-democracy activist Suu Kyi, who lived years under house arrest, praising her as an “inspiration to people all around the world.”
Obama said he hoped his visit would “sustain the momentum for democratization.”
But Suu Kyi offered a cautious note, telling reporters that democracy supporters needed to be “very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success.”
Obama’s visit, part of a three-country tour of Asia, caps off a rapid thawing of U.S.-Burmese relations.
Burma held legislative elections earlier this year and the Obama administration has since lifted a number of sanctions.
Hillary Clinton became the first secretary of State to visit the country in more than 50 years last November and Burmese President Thein Sein met with Clinton in New York during the U.N. General Assembly in September.