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President Obama Travels to Myanmar, Saluting a Long Struggle for Freedom

November 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And next to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, where President Obama’s visit today made some history.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: By the tens of thousands, cheering people packed the streets of Myanmar’s capital city today. The crowds waved American flags as they angled for a glimpse of the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian nation.

WOMAN (through translator): I hope he can bring change in every aspect.

MAN (through translator): I really hope that Obama will help build the transition to democracy. We have many ethnic groups in Myanmar. And they are also hoping that Obama will help them progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Also known as Burma, the country was under military rule for half-a-century and was largely closed off from the rest of the world. Yet, in the past two years, it’s begun a rapid about-face.

And, today, President Obama complimented the Myanmar president, former General Thein Sein, and his reforms.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The steps that he’s already taken for democratization, elections, the release of prisoners of conscience, a commitment to work with us on a human rights dialogue, all can unleash the incredible potential of this beautiful country.

RAY SUAREZ: From there, the president followed by admirers traveled to the home of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest and is now an elected member of her country’s house of representatives.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI, Opposition Leader: The United States has been staunch in its support of the democracy movement in Burma, and we are confident that this support will continue through the difficult years that lie ahead. I say difficult because the most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Obama joined in that caution, telling an audience at the University of Yangon that those in power must accept constraints. And he saluted Myanmar’s long struggle for freedom.

BARACK OBAMA: Above all, I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity. Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country, about you. You gave us hope and we bore witness to your courage.

RAY SUAREZ: Wherever they could, people watched the speech on television, as the president pressed for more reforms. He also urged an end to fighting between ethnic groups and Buddhists and Muslims in the north and west of the country.

BARACK OBAMA: Within these borders, we have seen some of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, which have cost countless lives and torn families and communities apart and stood in the way of development. No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation.  


RAY SUAREZ: During the president’s six-hour stay, the government of Myanmar announced new steps to try to calm the ethnic conflict.