Barack Obama with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after addressing the media at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon. He touched down yesterday morning, becoming the first serving US president to visit the Asian nation also known as Burma.Photo: AFP
US President Barack Obama used a historic speech in Myanmar yesterday to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was "no excuse for violence against innocent people".
"National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it is necessary to stop the incitement and to stop violence," he added.
He called for an end to communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in the western state of Rakhine.
"Today, we look at the recent violence in Rakhine state that has caused so much suffering, and we see the danger of continued tensions there," Obama said in his address at Yangon University.
"For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do," he added.
Two major outbreaks of clash since June in the state have left 180 people dead and more than 1,10,000 displaced, reports AFP.
Most of those who fled their homes were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have faced decades of discrimination.
The persecution of Rohingyas also affects Bangladesh. Whenever communal violence breaks out in Myanmar, the minorities intrude into Bangladesh through Teknaf bordering area.
Bangladesh accommodates around 29,000 registered Rohingya refugees, although different estimates suggest the number of the Myanmarese minorities unofficially living in and around Cox's Bazar ranges between 2.5 and 5 lakh, The Daily Star reported earlier.
Myanmar's reformist government is under pressure to give citizenship to the Rohingya as it comes under international scrutiny, with warnings that the conflict threatens its democratic transition.
Yesterday, Obama spent about six hours in Myanmar and did not visit the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, reports BBC.
The highlight of his visit was a speech at Yangon University, which was at the heart of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were violently suppressed by the military regime.
Addressing students, he said America would help to rebuild Myanmar's economy and could be a partner on its journey forward.
Referring to his January 20, 2009 inauguration speech in which he pledged the US would extend a hand to any country that was willing to unclench its fist, he said: "Today I've come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.
"Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished."
Obama then met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest. She thanked the US for its support but warned that difficult times could lie ahead.
The US president and his team also made a brief stop at Shwedagon Pagoda, the Yangon landmark that has been at the heart of many key moments in the country's history.
Obama was accompanied by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - who was returning to Myanmar almost a year after her first visit.
After visiting Myanmar, Obama headed to Cambodia to join a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, in a trip that underlines the shift in US foreign policy focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
The US President told Cambodia's premier in a "tense" meeting yesterday that his government's human rights violations were "an impediment" to better bilateral ties, a US official said.
Obama met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for talks in Phnom Penh ahead of joining an East Asia Summit.
Obama, the first US president to visit Cambodia, and Hun Sen shook hands before their meeting but the American did not smile during the greeting.
The Cambodian government has faced mounting criticism from rights groups in recent years for what they claim is a growing crackdown on dissidents and protesters in cases that are often linked to land disputes.
But Cambodia hit back at Obama's comments, saying the country was working to promote human rights and had been the victim of a "campaign" to distort the truth.