BANGKOK — President Barack Obama says his landmark visit to Myanmar is an acknowledgement of the democratic transition underway but not an endorsement of the country's government.
Obama's words were aimed at countering critics who say his trip to the country also known as Burma is premature. While Myanmar has undertaken significant reforms, hundreds of political prisoners are still detained and ethnic violence has displaced more than 100,000 people.
The president says his goal in visiting Myanmar is to highlight the steps the Asian nation still needs to take. He says he also wants to congratulate the people of Myanmar for having "opened the door" to being a country that respects human rights and political freedom.
Obama spoke Sunday during a news conference with Thailand's prime minister.
Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit the country, which is moving from a brutal reign toward democracy but still holds political prisoners and is living with ethnic violence.
"This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," Obama said. "This is an acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."
Obama said he was also guided by Myanmar's longtime democracy advocate, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who visited him recently at the White House.
"I'm not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there's an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country," he said.
Change in a country can happen quickly, Obama said, if people believe "their voices are heard."
The president will also visit Cambodia during his Asia trip, which began Sunday in Thailand. He was here as a sign of U.S. commitment to a region his administration deems vital to U.S. economic growth.
Obama got a red-carpet welcome, a dose of sightseeing and an official dinner of authentic Thai food.
In a news conference with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, both leaders spoke of deepening ties of trade, security and democracy. Obama's praised Thailand for being a supporter of democracy in Myanmar, the once-pariah state that is rapidly reforming. He said he appreciated the Thai prime minister's insights into Myanmar during their private meeting Sunday.
On a steamy day, Obama began with a visit to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok. In stocking feet, the president and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked up to a giant statue of Reclining Buddha, nearly 50 yards long and 45 feet high. The complex is a sprawling display of temples with colorful spires, gardens and waterfalls.
After his time at the temple, Obama paid a courtesy call to the ailing, 84-year-old U.S.-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters. The king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and studied in Europe.
The centerpiece of the Asia trip comes Monday when Obama travels to Myanmar. Obama aides see Myanmar as not only a success story but also as a signal to other countries that the U.S. will reward democratic behavior.
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