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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

President Obama paid a historic visit to Myanmar today. The southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, is tiptoeing towards democracy after almost 50 years in military rule. Mr. Obama met with the former leader who is now the president of Burma and with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is not a member of parliament after years of house arrest. The visit is the centerpiece of the president's three-day Asian tour, which is meant to underscore the United States' growing involvement in the region.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When President Obama arrived in Myanmar today, it was as if he'd breached a dam that was decades in the making. And smiles came flooding out. Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of Yangon waving flags and signs of welcome. Mr. Obama met first with the former general who now serves as Myanmar's civilian leader, then traveled to the home where Aung San Suu Kyi was held for years under house arrest.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm proud to be the first American president to visit this spectacular country and I am very pleased that one of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who's inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world.

HORSLEY: The former political prisoner who now serves as a member of parliament in Myanmar thanked the U.S. for its staunch support of the democracy movement in her country. Support she expects to continue through what she calls the difficult years ahead.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working to its genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.

HORSLEY: Today's visit is an important milestone on a journey that began three years ago. That's when the White House, having concluded that sanctions alone were not working in Myanmar, dispatched a diplomat to engage with the military regime. Over the last year and a half, the administration's been pleasantly surprised by the country's rapid reforms, including Democratic elections, a halt to at least some ethnic conflicts, and the release of political prisoners.

Still, come human rights activists complain this high level visit is too much too soon. Knowing there are still political prisoners held in Myanmar and unresolved ethnic conflicts that have displaced tens of thousands of people. Michael Green, who's the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, understands those complaints. He knows the gains in Myanmar are still tentative.

MICHAEL GREEN: It's a big risky for the president to go. This is not irreversible in the view of many people who observe Burma - myself included.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama addressed those fears on the eve of his visit saying the U.S. will be on the lookout for signs of backsliding by the government in Myanmar.

OBAMA: I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be. 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.

HORSLEY: Today's visit is intended to encourage further progress. Mr. Obama also announced plans to reopen a U.S. aide office in Burma with a modest two-year budget of about $170 million. The Burma trip is the midpoint on Mr. Obama's three-day visit to Asia that also includes stops in Thailand and Cambodia. He says it's no accident Asia is the destination for his first international trip since winning reelection this month.

OBAMA: As I've said many times, the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation. As the fastest growing region in the world, the Asia Pacific, will shape so much of our security and prosperity in the century ahead and it is critical to creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.

HORSLEY: The increased U.S. involvement in Asia is seen in part as a counterweight to China's rising power. Mr. Obama hopes to show other countries that, as with Myanmar, there are benefits to cooperating with the United States and the broader international community. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Yangon, Myanmar.

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