YANGON, Myanmar — Launching a landmark visit to long shunned Myanmar, President Obama said Monday he came to ‘‘extend the hand of friendship’’ to a nation moving from persecution to peace. But his praise and personal attention came with an admonition to those in charge: The work of ensuring and protecting freedoms has just begun.
On an overcast and steamy day, Obama touched down Monday morning, becoming the first US president to visit the Asian nation also known as Burma. Tens of thousands of people packed the streets to see his motorcade speed through the city. Many of them waved American flags and took photos with their smartphones.
The president was meeting with President Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country’s recent reforms. On Monday, Myanmar set free dozens of political prisoners around the country in an amnesty that coincided with the visit of Obama. At least 44 political prisoners were among 66 detainees released, including several prominent human rights activists, said former prisoner of conscience Soe Tun.
Obama also planned to meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest, a gated compound with a lawn ringed by roses. Obama will close with a speech at the University of Yangon, where he is expected to praise the country’s progress toward democracy but urge further reforms.
‘‘Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected,’’ the president said in speech excerpts released by the White House. ‘‘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’s visit to Myanmar was to last just six hours, but it carried significant symbolism, reflecting 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, 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.
Obama began his Asian tour in Bangkok, coming down the steps of Air Force One next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in recognition of their final foreign trip together. Clinton is leaving the job soon. The president paid a courtesy call to the ailing 84-year-old US-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters. The king, the longest-serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass.
The president’s tour marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising reelection campaign. For his first postelection trip, he tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed as crucial to US prosperity and security. Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama’s second term as the US seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.