YANGON, Myanmar - Launching a landmark visit to long shunned Myanmar, President Barack Obama said today that he came to "extend the hand of friendship" to a nation moving from persecution to peace.
But the praise and personal attention included an admonition from Obama: The work of ensuring and protecting freedoms has just begun.
The president touched down this morning, becoming the first U.S. president to visit this Asian nation, which is also known as Burma. He will meet with the nation's prime minister and democracy advocates, and close with a speech at the University of Yangon, where he was expected to praise the country's progress toward democracy but urge further reforms.
"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," the president said in speech excerpts released by the White House. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted. As you take these steps, you can draw on your progress."
Obama's visit was to last just six hours, but it carried significant symbolism, reflecting a remarkable turnaround in the countries' relationship.
Obama was to meet separately with President Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country's recent reforms. Obama also was to meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.
Obama has rewarded Myanmar's rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties. The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
In his speech, Obama recalled a promise he made upon taking office - that the United States would extend a hand if those nations that ruled in fear unclenched their fists.
"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," he said. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must become a shining North Star for all this nation's people."
The stop in Myanmar is part of a three-country, three-day tour through Southeast Asia. Obama began the trip with a stop in Thailand on Sunday, and he will conclude the visit in Cambodia on Tuesday.