CNN — On the eve of a historic trip to Myanmar, U.S. President Barack Obama deflected criticism Sunday, insisting the visit "is 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, the first stop on his Asia trip.
He added that the country is moving "in a better direction."
Nobel Prize Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy icon who spent 15 years under house arrest, is now a member of parliament, he noted. And during a visit to the White House, she encouraged the visit, he said.
While he will praise steps Myanmar has taken toward democracy, he will also make clear that "the country has a long way to go," Obama said.
"Change can happen very fast if a spotlight is shone on a country and the people there start believing that their voices can be heard," he said. "And one thing we can do as an international community is show the people of Burma that we're listening to them, we care about them. And this visit allows me to do that in a fairly dramatic fashion."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has embarked on a series of reforms since 2011 following decades of repressive military rule. Under Thein Sein, who became president last year, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners and taken steps to open up the country's economy.
Western governments have responded to Myanmar's progressive efforts by easing sanctions that targeted the military regime.
But the country has also witnessed bouts of turmoil in recent weeks.
Violence between Rohingya Muslims and local Buddhists broke out in the western state of Rakhine. The United Nations said at least 89 people were killed in two weeks, and 110,000 were displaced.
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.
After visiting Myanmar, Obama will attend the East Asia Summit in Cambodia.
Speaking Sunday alongside Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Obama emphasized that the United States is "a Pacific nation," and that events in the Pacific "will shape so much of our security and prosperity" in the future.
He said "restoring American engagement" in the region is one of his priorities.
Asia's vast economy accounts for roughly a quarter of the global gross domestic product.
Challenges facing the U.S. economy seeped in Sunday. Obama, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joked with a monk in Thailand. "We're working on this budget," he said. "We're going to need a lot of prayer for that."