ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE - 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," the president 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.
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.