PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On a history-making trip, President Barack Obama on Monday paid the first visit by an American leader to Myanmar and Cambodia, two Asian countries with troubled histories, one on the mend and the other still a cause of concern.
Obama’s fast-paced, pre-Thanksgiving trip vividly illustrated the different paths the regional neighbors are taking to overcome legacies of violence, poverty and repression.
Cheered by massive flag-waving crowds, Obama offered long-isolated Myanmar a “hand of friendship” as it rapidly embraces democratic reforms. Hours later, he arrived in Cambodia to little fanfare, then pointedly criticized the country’s strongman leader on the issue of human rights during a tense meeting.
Obama was an early champion of Myanmar’s sudden transformation to civilian rule following a half-century of military dictatorship. He’s rewarded the country, also known as Burma, with eased economic penalties, increased U.S. investment and now a presidential visit, in part to show other nations the benefits of pursuing similar reforms.
“You’re taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people,” Obama said during a speech at Myanmar’s University of Yangon.
The Cambodians are among those Obama is hoping will be motivated. White House officials said he held up Myanmar, a once-pariah state, as a benchmark during his private meeting Monday evening with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the autocratic Cambodian leader who has held power for nearly 30 years. Hun Sen’s rivals have sometimes ended up in jail or in exile.