Air Force One touched down in the unlikely destination of Yangon this morning as US President Barack Obama urged the former military junta to continue on its path to democracy. His arrival coincided with the release of at least 45 more political prisoners.
Ahead of meetings with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – his second in as many months – and reformist President Thein Sein, Obama told those gathered to greet him on the tarmac of Yangon Airport: “You gave us hope, and we bore witness to your courage.”
School children lined the streets of Myanmar’s largest city holding placards expressing adoration for the US president and many held up mobile phones to capture on camera the moment his motorcade passed.
Obama is the first president to visit the country following 50 years of isolation and military rule.
The meeting between Obama and counterpart Thein Sein acknowledged the progress Myanmar had made while urging recent process to continue.
“We think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities,” Obama told Thein Sein following their meeting in the old parliament building in the former capital Yangon.
In response, Thein Sein thanked the US for recently improved bilateral relations that have seen most sanctions eased.
“We will move the country forward as President Obama suggested,” Thein Sein said through a translator.
Following a meeting with Suu Kyi in the Oval Office in September, Obama met the Nobel laureate at the home where she has spent about 17 and a half of the past 22 years as a prisoner of conscience.
The two hugged as they each expressed cautious optimism for the reform process.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” said Suu Kyi. “Then we have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”
On Monday, reports began to come in that Myanmar had released at least 45 political prisoners as part of an amnesty announced last week by the president’s office.
Bo Bo Oo, a former political prisoner jailed for 20 years following widespread democracy protests in Yangon in 1988, said that Obama’s visit was “a great occasion” for Myanmar.
“We are now very optimistic about our country’s future,” he said.
Some rights groups have criticized America’s newly re-elected president for visiting Myanmar so early in its transition to democracy.
In a speech at Yangon University, the historic center of Myanmar’s independence movement and a previous hotbed of dissent against military rule, Obama called on Myanmar’s many ethnic groups to live together in peace following recent ethnic violence in Rakhine State.
The overall tone was one of reconciliation as Obama recounted the decades of confrontational ties between the US and Myanmar.
“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”