Barack Obama became the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar on Monday, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform.
Obama's first stop was a meeting with President Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving tiny American and Burmese flags, lined his route to the old parliament in the former capital, Yangon. Some held signs saying We love Obama. Approaching the building, crowds spilled into the street, getting close enough to touch Obama's vehicle.
Later Obama will meet fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule.
Obama's trek to Myanmar is meant to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement -- its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.
But some international human rights group object to the visit, saying Obama is rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job they regard as incomplete.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his visit, Obama denied he was going to offer his endorsement or that his trip was premature. He insisted his intention was to acknowledge that Myanmar, also known as Burma, had opened the door to democratic change but there was still much more to do.
I don't think anybody is under the illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be, Obama told a news conference as he began a three-country Asian tour, his first trip abroad since winning a second term.
On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time.
Obama arrives with his attention divided as he faces a mounting conflict in the Gaza Strip and grapples with a looming fiscal crisis at home.
But his Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, is aimed at showing how serious he is about shifting the U.S. strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called Asia pivot is also meant to counter China's rising influence.
Obama's trip to Burma risks providing an