Obama: "Something is stirring" in Burma

President Obama delivering speech at Yangon University in Burma Nov. 19, 2012
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Updated 6 a.m. ET

RANGOON, BURMA President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the troubled Southeast Asian nation of Burma Monday, calling on the country's leaders to continue reforms that have, in less than a year, set it on a path toward respectability in the international community.

"Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation," Mr. Obama said in a speech at Yangon University in the capital, Rangoon. "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."

Burma has until recently been regarded as one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships; outreach from the Obama administration over the last eighteen months seems to have resulted in improvement. Mr. Obama cited open elections, the release of political prisoners, and a ban on forced labor as examples of the improvement.

"Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers," the president said. "But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you - the people of this country. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage."

Before delivering his speech, Mr. Obama met with longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent fifteen years under house arrest in Burma during the country's military dictatorship.

This year, Suu Kyi was elected to Burma's parliament. Despite that success, she expressed a note of caution with Mr. Obama.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," Suu Kyi said. "Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success. And that we are working toward genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries."

Mr. Obama's message to the Burmese President Thein Sein struck a similar tone.

"I recognize this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey," Obama said to reporters, with Thein Sein at his side. "But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities."

Thein Sein complimented the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for reaching out to the Burmese government.

"We reached agreements on the development of democracy in Myanmar," Thein Sein said in Burmese.

The current leaders of the country, like the military junta that led it for 20 years, refer to it as Myanmar. The United States government calls the country by its original name, Burma. And Suu Kyi refers to it as Burma.

During his visit, Mr. Obama used both names. He referred to the country as Myanmar while standing with President Thein Sein. He referred to it as Burma when standing with Suu Kyi. An administration spokesman said the president used Myanmar as courtesy to the country's leader.

Mr. Obama's trip to Burma comes in the midst of a three day, two night trip to the region, his first foreign trip since securing re-election earlier this month.

Sunday, the president visited Bangkok, Thailand, the United States's oldest ally in the region, for meetings with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

Later Monday, he traveled to Cambodia to attend the East Asia Summit and participate in meetings with the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

At Yangon University, Mr. Obama was interrupted for applause only twice: when he argued for reconciliation between all of Burma's ethnic and religious groups, and when he said the most important job in a democracy is that of citizen.

He concluded his remarks optimistic about what he was seeing in Burma.

"I stand here with confidence that something is stirring in this country that cannot be reversed, and that the will of the people can lift up this nation and set an example for the world," the president said. "And you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey."