Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, arrived in the Southeast Asia's former capital of Yangon from Thailand, the first stop on a three-nation Asia tour, his first foreign trip after being re-elected this month. After Myanmar, Obama would visit Cambodia.
His visit to Myanmar, formerly called Burma, comes as that country, after decades of harsh military rule, is now is led by the military-supported civilian government of President Thein Sein, who has introduced a number of democratic and other reforms, including amnesty for hundreds of political and other prisoners. These reforms have been lauded by the West, and the Obama administration, while welcoming them, has called for the reform process to continue.
The Myanmar trip, however, also comes as the Southeast Asian nation remains mired in the months-long deadly ethnic violence between the majority Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslims in its western Rakhine state. Establishing ethnic peace is one of the main objectives of the Thein Sein government.
While in Bangkok, Obama responded Sunday to a question from a reporter about criticism from some quarters that his Myanmar trip was premature in that the reforms by the nearly 2-year-old civilian government have not gone far enough.
He said democracy in Myanmar is a work in progress, adding: "This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government. This is an acknowledgement that there's a process under way inside that country that even 1 1/2-two years ago, nobody foresaw."
Obama said President Thein Sein is taking steps "that move us in a better direction." He said opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now elected Parliament member and that political prisoners have been released.
"There is an articulated commitment to further political reform. But I don't think anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived; that they're where they need to be," the president said. "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. And 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."
Obama said during his scheduled address to the people of Myanmar from the University of Rangoon, he would not only congratulate them "on having opened the door to a country that respects human rights and respects political freedom," but also would hear that the country has a long way to go.
He said he is not one who "thinks that the United States should just stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there is an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country."
In his media session in Bangkok, Obama stressed his Asia-Pacific pivot, saying "the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation."
He said 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. And that's why I've made restoring American engagement in this region a top priority as president."
He said "the cornerstone of our strategy is our strong and enduring treaty alliances, which includes our alliance with Thailand." He called Thailand "America's oldest friend in Asia," noting 2013 would mark 180 years of diplomatic relations and the two sides have been committed to common defense for nearly 60 years.
Obama's final destination on the trip is Cambodia. He will be the first U.S. leader ever to visit the country, which is the most politically unstable of the three on his itinerary.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled for more than 25 years with rapid police response to political dissent.
The New York Times said Obama's tour was meant to substantiate his campaign pledges of giving Asian countries more foreign policy attention.