RANGOON, Burma -- In his six hour-visit, President Obama could only meet a handful of people personally in this country of 60 millon. But the symbolic weight of the first ever visit here by a serving U.S. President left a wide impression on a fast-changing country long shunned as a pariah by the West.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers, some waving U.S. flags, lined roads in the capital, Rangoon, as the presidential motorcade zipped to meetings with army general turned President Thein Sein, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Obama, who stopped earlier in Thailand, went on to Cambodia later Monday to attend an Asian regional summit.
The president's visit to Rangoon, also known as Yangon, was a nod of recognition of the country's moves from military rule toward democracy over the past two years.
Burma set free dozens of political prisoners around the country in an amnesty that coincided with the historic visit.
After a brief tour of the gold-plastered Shwedagon Buddhist pagoda, Burma's most sacred site, Obama gave a speech focused on freedom to an invited audience of around 1,500 people at the University of Rangoon, which authorities shuttered for years after student protests against the regime..
"This nation that has been so isolated can show the power of a new beginning," said Obama, who also reminded North Korea, still a card-carrying pariah, that letting go of its nuclear weapons, and choosing the "the path of peace and progress" will secure "an extended hand" from the USA.
Obama praised the "remarkable journey" that Burma, also known as Myanmar, has made and promised that the U.S. will be a long-term partner.
"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," he said.
He won applause for stressing the importance of national reconciliation and appealed for an end to recent, sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, where the minority, Muslim and stateless Rohingya people enjoy little sympathy from the majority Burmans.
There was "no excuse for violence against innocent people," Obama said. "The Rohingya ... hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it's necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence."
Biochemistry student Ma Wut Yi Lai Lai Soe, 24, said she was thrilled by Obama's visit.
"President Obama will help push changes here, including in education," she said. After decades of isolation, "he can help make Myanmar a more normal country."
To promote reconciliation, Burmese should seize on Obama's advice to use diversity as strength, said Khin Maung Win, 31, a former political prisoner who now heads the Myanmar Legal Aid Network.
Choosing the University of Rangoon was "very symbolic," as Burma's pioneers of anti-colonialism got their start there, as did, more recently, student protesters, he said. "For decades, intellectuals and students have struggled to get the freedom from fear that Obama spoke about."
After two years of college in the USA, Win returned this September both excited and realistic about reform.
"There's no 100% guarantee there will be change for the betterment of the country," he said. "I'm not satisfied by the process yet, as my standard is very high. We have a long way to go to be counted as a liberal democracy."
Obama's speech was broadcast live Monday afternoon on at least two Burmese TV channels, although the Burmese translation ended abruptly after Obama explained, in political terms, why he chose the venue, saying "This is a test of whether a country can transition to a better place."
In the audience, Khin Maung Win fixed a test date -- the next general election, when Aung San Suu Kyi could become president. "We can't predict the reaction of the army, if there is political change," he said. "But if the transfer in 2015 is smooth, whoever is elected, then we can say that Burma has passed the test."
The absence of a translation, however, didn't stop Buddhist monk Oo Thone Dra, 34, from continuing to watch, along with 50 other people in a downtown Rangoon tea shop.
"I like Obama, and his visit is good for Burma, even though some in the international community criticize Obama's trip as too early," he said between sips of green tea. "He comes here in the hope that our country becomes freer and more prosperous. He also comes to promote political, social, economic and educational changes in Burma."
Next door, in the modest, cramped headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the latest t-shirt on sale features her and Obama.
On Monday, party members eagerly discussed making a DVD of Obama's visit to sell alongside other fund-raising souvenirs such as Aung San Suu Kyi mugs and key-chains.
"The visit is not only good for the NLD, it's good for Burma and the Burmese people," said U Myo Nyunt, 47, director of the party's youth committee. "As the US eases sanctions, it must watch Burma and its changes very closely, without being too optimistic, as there is little transparency over decision-making in government," he said.
Contributing: Htoo Lwin Myo