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Obama First Sitting U.S. President To Visit Myanmar

President Obama visited Myanmar, also known as Burma, on Monday. In doing so, he became the first sitting U.S. president in history to visit the country. He was greeted by cheering crowds and promised the Burmese people that the U.S. would stand by them as Myanmar moved towards greater freedom and democracy. The president's visit was a controversial one, since the government there has yet to release many people the U.S. considers prisoners of conscience and large sections of the population are still suffering inter-communal violence. However the Obama administration says it wanted to applaud the reforms that have been made, and use the visit to encourage further progress.

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The people of Myanmar turned out today to cheer for President Obama. He is the first sitting U.S. president to visit their Southeast Asian country, which is also known as Burma. Mr. Obama promised the U.S. will stand by them as they make the difficult transition to democracy after decades of military rule. NPR's Scott Horsley was there and sent this report.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For President Obama, the opening up of Myanmar represents a vindication of a strategy he first spelled out nearly four years ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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're willing to unclench your fist.

HORSLEY: That strategy has yet to bear fruit in Iran or North Korea. But over the last year and a half, it has produced striking reforms in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has held democratic elections, halted some ethnic conflicts and freed political prisoners. So Mr. Obama says the U.S. is now living up to its part of the bargain: easing economic sanctions and reopening a local office for USAID.

OBAMA: And the United States wants to be a partner in helping this country, which used to be the rice bowl of Asia, to re-establish its capacity to feed its people and to care for its sick and educate its children and build its democratic institutions as you continue down the path of reform.

HORSLEY: Perhaps the biggest reward for Myanmar's reforms is the high-profile visit of the president himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Obama. Obama. Obama.

HORSLEY: Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Yangon today, smiling and waving to Mr. Obama as he made his way from the famous Shwedagon Buddhist Pagoda to another kind of shrine - the house where, for years, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was held prisoner.

OBAMA: Here, through so many difficult years, is where she displayed such unbreakable courage and determination. It's here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.

HORSLEY: Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest and now serves in Myanmar's parliament, thanked the United States for supporting her country's democracy movement. But she also expressed caution about whether Myanmar's reforms are genuine and lasting.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.

HORSLEY: U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon says the administration understands that reform in Myanmar still has a long way to go.

THOMAS DONILON: We're not naive about this. We absolutely are aware of the dangers of backsliding. And if that takes place, we'll respond accordingly. But this really is a moment that we didn't want to miss.

HORSLEY: Just before Mr. Obama's visit, Myanmar's president announced additional reform measures, including a process to evaluate the remaining political prisoners, and actions to protect ethnic minorities from violence.

PRESIDENT THEIN SEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

HORSLEY: President Thein Sein even borrowed Mr. Obama's own re-election slogan, saying he wants to keep his country moving forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HORSLEY: From Myanmar, Mr. Obama traveled to Cambodia for a Southeast Asian summit meeting, where he quickly confronted his host about Cambodia's dismal human rights record. If the White House is holding up Myanmar as an example of the rewards that come with political reform, it's using Cambodia to make the opposite point. Those countries that move in the right direction will find positive benefits, said a White House spokesman. Those countries that don't are going to be held back. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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