Updated at 1:00 p.m. EST on 2012-11-19.
President Barack Obama on Monday became the first sitting U.S. leader to visit Burma, saying he made the trip to the once-pariah nation to acknowledge that it has opened the door to democratic reforms after five decades of harsh military rule.
He pushed the government of reformist Burmese President Thein Sein to speed up and strengthen the reform process.
"Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip," Obama told students at Rangoon University, a site of both student activism and brutal repression under the junta.
"This remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go," he said. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished. They must be strengthened."
Obama said that when he became president first in 2009, he had vowed to reach out to those “willing to unclench [their] fist[s]” and praised Burma for responding.
“So today, I have come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship,” he said.
Obama arrived in Rangoon by plane from Bangkok after a two-day visit to America's oldest ally Thailand and was greeted by tens of thousands of people, many of them waving American flags, who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him as his motorcade sped through Burma's commercial capital.
Obama held talks with Thein Sein at a parliament building in Rangoon and later with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa, where she had spent years under house arrest during the military junta's rule.
He also made a surprise visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies that is the spiritual center of Burmese Buddhism.
Thein Sein said he and Obama "reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar [Burma] and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards" while Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned against overoptimism amid the reforms.
"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said. "We have to be very careful that we're not lured by the mirage of success."
Obama prodded the Thein Sein administration to step up the reform process in a comprehensive manner.
“That is how you must reach for the future you deserve,” Obama said.
“A future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many and the law is stronger than any leader, where no child is made to be a soldier and no woman is exploited, where national security is strengthened by a military that serves under civilians and a constitution guarantees that only those who are elected by the people may govern," he added.
On Sunday, Burmese state television said 66 more prisoners would be released on Monday, bringing to 518 the number released over the past week.
The previous batch did not include political prisoners, according to rights groups, but a senior prison department official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters news agency that Myint Aye, a prominent human rights activist, would be among those freed on Monday.
On the eve of Obama's visit, Burma also pledged to agree to adopt new nuclear safeguards that allow inspections of suspected clandestine atomic sites.
The pledge came hours after the White House said Burma has taken "positive steps" to reduce its military relationship with North Korea, which is facing international sanctions for its illicit nuclear program.
Thein Sein also assured the international community on Friday that his government will consider resolving contentious rights issues facing the Muslim Rohingya, including the possibility of providing them citizenship following deadly communal violence between the stateless group and Rakhine Buddhists in western Rakhine state.
It was the clearest indication yet that the government is moving to address the plight of the Rohingyas, whom the United Nations considers among the world's most persecuted minorities
Obama called for an end to the unrest in Rakhine, saying there was "no excuse for violence against innocent people."
"For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do," Obama said.
Rights groups say the Rohingyas bore the brunt of the violence, in which Rakhines were also among those killed and made homeless.
During his six-hour visit, Obama confined himself to Rangoon and did not set foot on Naypyidaw, the country's administrative capital widely viewed as the military's power base and to which the U.S. and many Western embassies have refused to move their offices.
On the eve of his Burma trip, while speaking in Thailand, Obama rejected suggestions by rights groups that he was going to Rangoon to offer his "endorsement" of the Burmese government or that his trip was premature.
"This is an acknowledgment that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw," Obama said.
He said Burma was moving "in a better direction" under Thein Sein, who has spearheaded political and economic reforms since taking office in March 2011 after landmark elections the year before.
"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be," Obama said, on his first trip abroad since winning a second term in office earlier this month.
"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," he said.
Import ban scrapped
Before Obama left Washington on Saturday, the United States scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from Burma, opening up to products from the country with the exception of gems, a sector seen as a major driver of corruption and violence.
The move is "intended to support the Burmese government's ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses," a statement from the State and Treasury departments said.
Obama will fly later Monday to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh to attend the 18-nation East Asia Summit that will also attended by 10 leaders from Southeast Asia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.