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Obama makes history with Myanmar visit

Yangon, Nov 19, 2012 (AFP)
US President Barack Obama (centre L) finishes a meeting with Myanmar's President Thein Sein (centre R) at the regional parliament building in Yangon on November 19, 2012. Obama met Myanmar's reformist leader Thein Sein during a landmark visit to Yangon aimed at encouraging political reforms. AFP PHOTO

US President Barack Obama arrived in Myanmar today 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.

"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," Obama will say, according to excerpts of his address. "But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go."

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.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," Obama was to say. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted."

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 today 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 USD 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.

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