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Obama makes historic visit to Myanmar and Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On a history-making trip, President Barack Obama on Monday paid the first visit by an American leader to Myanmar and Cambodia, two Asian countries with troubled histories, one on the mend and the other still a cause of concern.

Obama's fast-paced trip vividly illustrated the different paths the regional neighbors are taking to overcome legacies of violence, poverty and repression.

Cheered by massive flag-waving crowds, Obama offered long-isolated Myanmar a "hand of friendship" as it rapidly embraces democratic reforms. Hours later, he arrived in Cambodia to little fanfare, then pointedly criticized the country's strongman leader on the issue of human rights during a tense meeting.

Obama was an early champion of Myanmar's sudden transformation to civilian rule following a half-century of military dictatorship. He has rewarded the country, also known as Burma, with eased economic penalties, increased U.S. investment and now a presidential visit, in part to show other nations the benefits of pursuing similar reforms.

"You're taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people," Obama said during a speech at Myanmar's University of Yangon.

White House officials said he held up Myanmar, a once-pariah state, as a benchmark during his private meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the autocratic Cambodian leader who has held power for nearly 30 years. Hun Sen's rivals have sometimes ended up in jail or in exile.

Unlike the arrangement after Obama's meetings with President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi in Myanmar, the U.S. and Cambodian leaders did not speak to the media after their one-on-one talks. They did step before cameras briefly before their meeting to greet each other with a brisk handshake and little warmth.

Aides acknowledged that the meeting was tense.

Winding down his trip, Obama talked on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Obama called the relationship between the U.S. and Japan a "cornerstone of prosperity and security in the region."

In Myanmar, Obama took the chance to single out Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited Suu Kyi's home last year, as key to pushing along the country's reform movement.

"This is her last foreign trip that we're going to take together, and it is fitting that we have come here to a country that she has done so much to support," Obama said.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.