independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Obama speaks of 'momentum' in Burma

US president Barack Obama is greeted by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (AP)

In a historic trip to the long-shunned land of Burma, US president Barack Obama has showered it with praise and promises of more US help if the Asian nation keeps building its new democracy.

"Our goal is to sustain the momentum," he declared as he became the first US president to visit Burma. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets as Obama packed in diplomacy and soaking in his steamy surroundings.

He shared words and an affectionate hug with the Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist who endured years of house arrest to gain freedom and become an MP.

"We are confident that this support will continue through the difficult years that lie ahead," she said of the help from the US. "The most difficult time in any transition is when you think that success is in sight. We have to be very careful that we're not lured by a mirage of success."

Obama told her that if the nation's leaders keep making true reforms, "we will do everything we can to ensure success". He met her in the very home where she spent years under house arrest, a gated compound with a lawn ringed by roses.

The president was then on his way to give a televised speech at the University of Yangon, in which he would deliver the same message. Obama planned to tell his audience that the United States is ready to "extend the hand of friendship" now that Burma has unclenched its fist of iron rule.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," the president will say. "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."

Long isolated because of a repressive military rule, Burma began a transition to democracy last year. After meeting president Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of the transition, Obama said the reforms could unleash "the incredible potential of this beautiful country".

Obama's visit to Burma lasted just six hours, but it carries significant symbolism, reflecting a remarkable turnaround in the countries' relationship. Obama has rewarded the rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties and appointed a permanent ambassador.

Some human rights groups say Burma's government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, has not done enough to earn a visit from Obama. The president says it is not an endorsement of the government, but an acknowledges dramatic progress is underway.

Press Association

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