Controversial Burma visit "not an endorsement" of its government, Obama says

President Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (not pictured) attend a joint press conference, in Government House on November 18, 2012 in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Jack Kurtz/Getty Images

Updated 2:30 a.m. ET

President Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma. He landed there Monday.

While he's there, the Burmese public will hear him congratulate the former pariah state "on having opened the door to a country that respects human rights and respects political freedom," he said during a press conference Sunday. "But what they'll also hear is that the country has a long way to go."

Mr. Obama's unprecedented stop through the nation -- also called Myanmar -- during his Southeast Asia trip has angered some human rights activists who believe the country should prove it has truly moved on from its years of brutal military rule before a sitting president pays it a visit. But Mr. Obama argued during Sunday's news conference in Thailand that Burma's steps toward democratization deserve acknowledgement.

The visit "is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," the president pointed out, but "an acknowledgement that there's a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."

Citing positive leadership from Burma's president, Thein Sein, and Parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi -- both of whom he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Monday -- as well as the release of political prisoners, Mr. Obama said the nation is demonstrating "an articulated commitment to further political reform." While admitting no one "is under any illusion that Burma has arrived," he argued, "If we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time.

"One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made, but also to give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future," the president continued. "Change can happen very fast if a spotlight is shown on what's going on in a country, and the people there start believing that their voices are heard around the world. And one of the things that we can do as an international community is make sure that the people of Burma know we're paying attention to them, we're listening to them, we care about them.

"And this visit allows me to do that in a fairly dramatic fashion," he concluded.

Speaking Monday after a private meeting with Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, Mr. Obama said he's seen encouraging signs of progress in the country in the past year, including her release from house arrest and her election to Parliament.

The president's stop in Myanmar also gives him an opportunity to see a place that helped form his Kenyan grandfather, according to the New York Times. Hussein Onyango Obama spent part of World War II in what was then Burma as a cook for a British Army captain.

Later Monday, another presidential first: Following his Burmese visit, Mr. Obama was to travel to Cambodia to attend the East Asia Summit.

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