US President Barack Obama arrived in Myanmar on Monday for a historic visit aimed at encouraging a string of dramatic political reforms in the former pariah state.
Obama is the first serving US president to set foot in the country also known as Burma, in the starkest illustration yet of its emergence from a long period of isolation and repression.
Air Force One touched down in Yangon, where Obama hopes to embolden President Thein Sein to deepen the country’s startling march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.
Obama will use a major speech at Yangon University to hail “the flickers of progress” in Myanmar, the White House said.
The setting for the speech will be rich in symbolism as the university was the scene of past episodes of pro-democratic student unrest, including mass demonstrations in 1988 that ended in a bloody military crackdown.
In a nod to a recent wave of deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, Obama will urge Myanmar to “draw on diversity as a strength, not a weakness”.
In a scene that would have been unthinkable until recently, Obama will on Monday stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.
The White House hopes Obama’s visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein’s reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government — albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.
US officials said Obama would announce a $170 million development aid pledge to Myanmar to coincide with the formal opening of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Myanmar, which was suspended for years over the junta’s repression of the democracy movement.
The money, spread over a two-year period, will target projects in civil society designed to build democratic institutions and improve education.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
Myanmar unveiled new pledges on human rights on the eve of the visit, saying it would review prisoner cases in line with “international standards” and open its jails to the Red Cross, as part of efforts to burnish its reform credentials.
The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions.
But it continues to call for the release of scores of political prisoners still in Myanmar’s jails, as well as an end to sectarian bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state.
Obama fever has swept Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon, with his image emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and even graffiti-covered walls.
Obama’s trip to Asia, coming less than a fortnight after his re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast-emerging region he sees as vital to its future.
The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.
Later on Monday Obama will fly to Cambodia, where he is likely to face a tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.