(MENAFN - Arab News) US President Barack Obama used a historic speech in Myanmar Monday 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 said.
Obama on Monday stepped onto the soil of long-shunned Myanmar and into the flag-waving embrace of its once repressed people, becoming the first US president to visit what not long ago had been an international outcast.
Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to welcome Obama to a place still learning its basic freedoms.
Speaking to a national audience from the University of Yangon, Obama offered a "hand of friendship" and a lasting US commitment, yet a warning as well. He said the new civilian government must nurture democracy or watch it, and US support, disappear.
"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," he said.
Two major outbreaks of violence since June between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
Most of those who fled their homes were stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have faced decades of discrimination.
"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.
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.
The visit to Myanmar was the centerpiece of a four-day trip to Southeast Asia that began in Bangkok and will end Tuesday in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, where Obama will attend an East Asia Summit.
Obama seemed to revel in the history of what he was witnessing in Myanmar - a nation shedding years of military rule, and a relationship between two nations changing fast.
"This remarkable journey has just begun," he said.
In a notable detour from US government policy, the president referred to the nation as Myanmar, the preferred name of the former military regime and the new government, rather than Burma, the old name and one favored by democracy advocates and one commonly used by US officials.
On his first post-election trip abroad, Obama got a warm welcome in Myanmar, hugging long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a personal inspiration to him. Crowds swelled at every intersection, yelling affectionately for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "You are the legend hero of our world," one banner read.
In his speech, Obama acknowledged Myanmar's many democratic shortcomings but said: "The United States of America is with you."