By Katie Hunt
(CNN) — Barack Obama met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Myanmar on Monday, praising her “courage and determination” during a historic visit to the once repressive and secretive country.
The first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, Obama urged its leaders, who have embarked on a series of far-reaching political and economic reforms since 2011, not to extinguish the “flickers of progress that we have seen.”
Obama said that his visit to the lakeside villa where the pro-democracy icon spent years under house arrest marked a new chapter between the two countries.
“Here, through so many difficult years, is where she has displayed such unbreakable courage and determination,” Obama told reporters, standing next to his fellow Nobel peace laureate. “It is here where she showed that human freedom and human dignity cannot be denied.”
The country, which is also known as Burma, was ruled by military leaders until early 2011 and for decades was politically and economically cut off from the rest of the world.
Suu Kyi acknowledged that Myanmar’s opening up would be difficult.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think 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 toward its genuine success for our people and friendship between our two countries,” she said.
Before meeting Suu Kyi, Obama spent an hour with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, whose reform drive has seen the release of hundreds of political prisoners and steps to open up the country’s economy.
Obama said the democratic and economic reforms started by the president could lead to “incredible development opportunities.” Thein Sein, who wore a long purple sarong and white shirt, told Obama he was committed to strengthening bilateral relations.
In a departure from usual protocol, Obama referred to the country as Myanmar. The name Myanmar was introduced by the former military regime 23 years ago and is preferred by the country’s current leaders, but the Obama administration has largely stuck to British colonial name of Burma that is also used by Suu Kyi and democracy activists.
As well as meeting Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, Obama delivered a speech at the University of Yangon, where he urged the country to continue with its “remarkable journey.”
“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished,” Obama said. “Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation.”
“Obama fever” gripped Yangon, with the street from the airport lined with crowds waving the stars and stripes, taking pictures and craning for a glimpse of the president.
Obama’s image also featured on T-shirts and mugs for sale in city stores.
On the eve of his Myanmar trip, Obama insisted that the visit was “not an endorsement of the Burmese government.”
“This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw,” Obama told reporters in Thailand on Sunday, the first stop on his Asia trip. He added that the country was moving “in a better direction.”
Western governments have responded to Myanmar’s progressive efforts by easing sanctions that targeted the military regime. On Friday, the U.S. eased restrictions on imports of most goods from Burma.
But the country has also witnessed bouts of turmoil in recent months. Violence between Rohingya Muslims and local Buddhists broke out in the western state of Rakhine.
During the latest eruption of tensions, the United Nations said at least 89 people were killed in two weeks, and 110,000 were displaced.
Obama urged Myanmar to use its “diversity as a strength, not a weakness.”
“I believe deeply that this country can transcend its differences, and that every human being within these borders is a part of your nation’s story.”
He met briefly with representatives of civil society organizations, including an advocate for Burma’s Rohingya population.
However, some aid organizations are questioning whether now is the right time for Obama to add legitimacy to Thein Sein’s government.
Burmese exile leaders and human rights advocates have expressed concerns that the visit is too soon, and may not yield the additional reforms that a presidential visit can deliver if it happens at the right time.
Following his stop in Myanmar, Obama is scheduled to attend the East Asia Summit in Cambodia later Monday.
CNN’s Josh Levs, Holly Yan, Gabriella Schwarz, Paula Hancocks and Dan Rivers contributed to this report.
™ & © 2012 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.