Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar on Monday, praising the courage of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi while also providing a symbolic nod to initial reforms in a nation once notorious for political repression.
Later, Obama traveled to Cambodia for a summit of regional leaders and held what an aide called a “tense”meeting with the host country’s prime minister that emphasized the need for improving human rights there.
The president’s trip, his first overseas since winning re-election this month, foreshadowed the focus his administration will place on Asia in a second term as part of a strategy to blunt Chinese influence in the region. Cambodia is an ally of China.
Monday’s highlight was the several hours Obama spent in Myanmar, the formerly secretive country also known as Burma.
The president met with Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where she spent years under house arrest for her pro-democracy activism. Obama called the meeting a new chapter between the two countries.
“Here, through so many difficult years, is where she has displayed such unbreakable courage and determination,” Obama told reporters, standing next to Suu Kyi. “It is here where she showed that human freedom and human dignity cannot be denied.”
Myanmar was politically and economically isolated from the rest of the world for decades until it ended military rule last year.
In a diplomatic show of support, Obama referred to the country by the government’s preferred name — Myanmar — rather than the colonial name of Burma used by Suu Kyi and democracy activists.
Suu Kyi warned that Myanmar’s reform process would be difficult.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think success is in sight, then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success, and that we are working toward its genuine success for our people and friendship between our two countries,” she said.
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