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RANGOON — US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived at Yangon International Airport at 9:30 am on Monday for the start of a brief but historic visit to Burma that marks a major turning point in the country’s efforts to return to international respectability.
On hand to greet the newly re-elected US leader were thousands of well-wishers, including schoolchildren, Buddhist monks and ordinary citizens eager to catch a glimpse of the first US president ever to visit their country.
Foreign and local journalists were also out in force to record this moment and possibly even capture an iconic image to cap a year of historic firsts in Burma’s long-awaited return to the world stage after half a century of isolation.
Long regarded as an international pariah because of its decades of brutal military rule, Burma showed a very different face today, with placard-holding children shouting heartfelt greetings to Obama, wishing him a long and healthy life.
“May America and Myanmar remain firm friends!” they called to the tired-looking president as he and Clinton—who waved and smiled to the cheering crowd—made their way to their first destination, the former Parliament building in Dagon Township, near Shwedagon Pagoda.
After the president’s motorcade passed, the crowd that had turned out to greet him expressed hope that he and their own president, ex-general Thein Sein, would find some way to fully restore democracy in their long-oppressed country.
Pwint Phoo Mo, a ninth-grader dressed in a standard green-and-white school uniform, was among those waiting in front of the airport holding US and Burmese flags and pictures of the two presidents.
“I’m so happy I could welcome President Obama. He’s so intelligent, and he’s a hero of democracy,” she said.
Hla Htein, a retired government servant, sounded almost as enthusiastic. “I hope President Obama and President Thein Sein will work together to bring real democracy,” he said. “Right now, this is still not a fully democratic country. I want them to push for full democracy.”
After meeting with Thein Sein at the Parliament house, Obama is scheduled to go to the home of opposition leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for further talks.
Suu Kyi, who was in India last week for the latest of a series of high-profile trips abroad this year, previously met with Obama in the Oval Office during a visit to the US in September.
Later in the day Obama will meet representatives of civil society groups at the campus of Rangoon University, once a focal point of student-led pro-democracy protests, but for decades shuttered by a paranoid regime.
He is also expected to speak to reporters there before wrapping up his visit.