Burma frees political prisoners as Obama makes historic visit

Nov 19, 2012

President Obama praises Burmese counterpart for reforms, but Aung San Suu Kyi urges caution

BURMA has released dozens of political prisoners as US President Barack Obama marked his historic visit to the former pariah state by pledging support for any nation that respects its citizens's rights and international law.

Obama is the first serving US president to visit Burma – or Myanmar. He spent just six hours in the country today meeting President Thein Sien and fellow Nobel peace prize laureate and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule.

Obama praised the government's success in shaking off military control, called for more reforms and urged an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was "no excuse for violence against innocent people".

The Daily Telegraph reports that tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving American and Burmese flags, lined Obama's route to the old parliament in the former capital, Rangoon, where he met President Thein Sein.

Standing next to the former junta member who has carried out a programme of reforms since taking office in 2011, Obama said Burma had taken "the first steps on what will be a long journey". The process of democratic and economic reform was one that could lead to "incredible development opportunities," he added.

In a move apparently tied to Obama's visit, Burma has released as many as 66 political prisoners in the past 48 hours, pro-democracy activist Soe Tun told USA Today. Their identities were not immediately available.

Obama's trip to Burma, his first foreign visit since winning the US election, is meant to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement: its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.

But as The Guardian reports, some international human rights group object to the visit, saying Obama is rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job they regard as incomplete.

Those concerns were echoed by Aung San Suu Kyi when Obama met her at her lakeside home today. The opposition leader warned of a "mirage of success", the Telegraph reports, noting that the most difficult time in any transition "is when we think that success is in sight".

During his visit Obama made a surprise stop at the Shwedagon pagoda, the gilded temple known in English as The Great Dragon Pagoda. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.

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Obama made a huge cultural faux pas. Burmese despise kissing in public. Actually, they do not kiss, they sniff!