YANGON, Myanmar -- Launching a landmark visit to long shunned Myanmar, U.S. President Barack Obama said he comes to "extend the hand of friendship" to a nation moving from persecution to peace. But the praise and personal attention come with an admonition from Obama: The work of ensuring and protecting freedoms has just begun.
Obama touched down this morning, becoming the first U.S. president to visit this Asian nation, which is also known as Burma. He will meet with the nation's prime minister and democracy advocates, and close with a speech at the University of Yangon, where he will praise the country's progress toward democracy but urge further reforms.
"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," the president said in speech excerpts released by the White House. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted. As you take these steps, you can draw on your progress."
Obama's visit was to last six hours, but it carries significant symbolism, reflecting a remarkable turnaround in the countries' relationship.
Hundreds of children and young people dressed in white shirts and green sarongs, many of them wearing traditional cheek makeup smears and holding small U.S. flags, lined both sides of the road for more than half a mile heading out of the airport.
Obama will meet separately in Myanmar with Prime Minister Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country's recent reforms. The president will also meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.
Obama has rewarded Myanmar's rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties. The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
In his speech, Obama recalls a promise he made upon taking office -- that the United States would extend a hand if those nations that ruled in fear unclenched their fists.
"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," he said. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must become a shining North Star for all this nation's people."
Some human rights groups say Myanmar's government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, hasn't done enough to earn a personal visit from Obama. The president said from Thailand on Sunday that his visit is not an endorsement of the government in Myanmar, but an acknowledgment dramatic progress is underway and it deserves a global spotlight.
The president's Asia tour also marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising re-election campaign. For his first postelection trip, he tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed the region as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security.
-- The Associated Press