Obama praises Burma over reforms

  • @AndrewBuncombe

Barack Obama made history yesterday, becoming the first sitting US President to visit Burma and telling a packed audience that he had come to bear witness to a dramatic transformation he believes is underway.

Dismissing many observers, who said it was too early to reward Burma's nominally civilian government with such a high-profile and significant visit, Mr Obama said he believed the military dictatorship – whose hold on power had spanned five decades – had finally loosened its grip.

On his six-hour visit to the country – the most senior US official to last visit Burma was Richard Nixon, who was then Vice-President, in 1953 – Mr Obama met both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. To the latter he bestowed a slightly awkward kiss in the garden of the lakeside home where she spent more than 15 years under house arrest.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," said Ms Suu Kyi, who was released from detention two years ago.

The most significant part of Mr Obama's visit, before he left to attend a summit of South-east Asian leaders in Cambodia, was a speech he gave at the University of Rangoon. Of the once close relationship between the US and Burma, Mr Obama said that in recent decades the "two countries became strangers". But he referred to a comment he made after he was first elected, in which he said the US was ready to reach out to previously hostile governments who would "unclench" their fists.

"And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun... under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform," he said. "So today, I have come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship."

He also referred to the issue of political prisoners, saying a single prisoner of conscience was one too many. Although the authorities released several dozen more prisoners ahead of Mr Obama's visit, it is estimated that up to 300 are still behind bars.