PHNOM PENH: President Barack Obama told Burma's impoverished people he had come to ''extend the hand of friendship'' during a six-hour visit to the former pariah state that marked a historic milestone in US efforts to expand its influence in south-east Asia.
Speaking directly to Burma's people, Mr Obama said that ''over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip … Instead of being repressed, the right of the people to assemble together must now be fully respected.
''Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted.''
Waiting … students at the airport wave US and Burmese flags. Photo: AP
Hundreds of people waving US flags, many of them children, lined the streets of Burma's largest city, Rangoon, to welcome Mr Obama, the first sitting US president to visit the country that is strategically located between China and India, and has been a close ally of Beijing for decades.
Banners were strung over roads congratulating Mr Obama for his re-election victory less than two weeks ago.
Using himself as an example to promote government restraint and democracy, Mr Obama said: ''I stand before you today as President of the most powerful nation on Earth, with a heritage that would have once denied me the right to vote.'' In private talks with the reforming President, Thein Sein, and other leaders, Mr Obama called for the release of about 200 political prisoners, to follow through on promises to break military ties with North Korea and lead a national reconciliation process to address violence against the country's minority Muslim Rohingya and end other human rights abuses, US officials said.
US President Barack Obama and Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AP
Mr Obama also met Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mr Obama announced a $US170 million ($164 million) aid pledge for Burma to build institutions and improve education.
US officials said more aid would be contingent on the government keeping up the pace of reform. Human rights groups have criticised the visit, saying Mr Obama should not have gone to Burma until reforms have been consolidated.
In Bangkok earlier, Mr Obama said it was ''no accident'' that he is making his first foreign trip to Asia after winning re-election, saying the US is a ''Pacific nation'' and the Asia-Pacific region will be crucial for creating jobs in the US and shaping its security and prosperity.''
Analysts say Mr Obama's three-day whirlwind visits to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia aim to reinforce his administration's commitment to deepen ties to the region to counter China's rising influence.
Mr Obama flew late on Monday to Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, a forum of 18 world leaders, where the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations have shown a rare display of unity against China's claims to the South China Sea, calling for the first formal talks with Beijing over the dispute that has exposed deep divisions in the region.
China has sought one-on-one negotiations to resolve the disputes with smaller countries - the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - and has objected to any effort to bring the problem to forums like ASEAN. The outgoing Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, arrived in Phnom Penh for talks with ASEAN leaders who agreed to negotiate a code of conduct aimed at reducing tensions in the South China Sea.