“Mr Obama we ♥ you Legend, hero of our world,” read one sign in the crowd.
The visit also held reminders of the difficult balancing act that the Obama administration is attempting here. After meeting with President Thein Sein, the civilian leader who took control of the country from the junta, Obama for the first time referred to the country as “Myanmar,” the name used by the nation’s own leaders. Aides said later that Obama’s word choice was intended as a courtesy but no more.
The U.S. government’s policy has been to continue using “Burma” — the English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one used by the opposition when speaking English. In 1989, a year after brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta changed the name of the country in English from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.
The protests during that period spread across much of Burma, leading to a military crackdown that killed thousands of citizens. Suu Kyi emerged as a leading opposition figure, and a year later her pro-democracy party won a parliamentary majority, although the military junta refused to give up power.
More recently, a group of monks led the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, which was put down violently after several weeks.
“For the past 20 years, there were some disappointments and obstacles in our diplomatic relations,” Thein Sein, wearing a purple saronglike longyi, said after meeting with Obama. He added that the two countries had “reached agreements on the development of democracy in Myanmar.”
Obama aides announced that the United States would reestablish the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in the country and offer up to $170 million in financial assistance over two years, contingent on Burmese action to implement democratic policies and stem ongoing ethnic violence against the Muslim minority.
For its part, the Burmese government announced a series of pledges, including allowing human rights activists to visit prisons, inviting the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a local office and reviewing the cases of 200 or so political prisoners remaining from military rule.
Human rights activists, who had lobbied the White House to cancel Obama’s trip to Burma, hailed the new commitments.
“They show that Burma values the friendship of the United States and that the Obama administration remains committed to using that friendship to promote human rights,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
In the afternoon, Obama arrived at Yangon University, a center of pro-democracy demonstrations nearly 25 years ago. Once called Rangoon University, the school has an illustrious history featuring alumni such as Suu Ki’s father, Aung San, a renowned general who led Burma to independence from British rule.
Closed by the government for much of the 1990s for fear of renewed student protests, the university has since fallen into disrepair. Officials hope Obama’s visit will help boost its fortunes.
“I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity,” the president told hundreds of students in a lecture hall as Clinton, Suu Kyi and U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell sat in the front row. “Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you — the people of this country.”
He cautioned against complacency, saying the “flickers of progress . . . must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
Earlier in the day, after her meeting with Obama, Suu Kyi sounded a similar warning: “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working to a genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.”
In front of the television cameras, she leaned in toward the president, and he kissed her on both cheeks.
Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.