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Obama Becomes First U.S. President to Visit Myanmar, Extends 'Hand of Friendship

"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship"

A Burmese monk walks by a shop hanging flags and T shirts as Yangon gets prepared for the first visit of President Barack Obama November 18, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: Getty Images)

(TheBlaze/AP) -- En route to a historic visit to long shunned Myanmar, President Barack Obama says 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 democracy has just begun.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," Obama said in speech excerpts released ahead of his arrival Monday. "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 is the first U.S. president to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma. He was flying from Thailand on Monday morning, local time, for a visit that would last just six hours but carries significant symbolism. It is the result of a remarkable turnaround in the countries' relationship.

A Burmese monk walks by a shop hanging flags and T shirts as Yangon gets prepared for the first visit of President Barack Obama November 18, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: Getty Images)

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, to be delivered at Rangoon University, 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 that 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.

US President Barack Obama (C) and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (2nd L) review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at Government House in Bangkok on November 18, 2012.

Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama's second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.

China's rise is also at play in Myanmar, which long has aligned itself with Beijing. But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy.

Obama plans to meet separately with Prime Minister Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country's recent reforms.  He will also meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.

The White House says Obama will express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people - the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya - have been displaced.

Burmese work to silk screen more Obama T shirts at a local shop as Yangon gets prepared for the first visit of President Barack Obama November 18, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: Getty Images)

The U.N. has called the Rohingya - who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar - among the world's most persecuted people.

The White House says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.

The president will cap his trip to Myanmar with a speech at Rangoon University, the center of the country's struggle for independence against Britain and the launching point for many pro-democracy protests. The former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.

--

Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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