In his televised speech at the University of Yangon, a former center of political uprisings, Obama urged Myanmar to give all citizens a voice. He told the audience of 1,500 that every nation, including the diverse United States, struggles to define its citizenship but that certain principles of freedom should be universal.
“I stand before you today as president of the most powerful nation on Earth, but recognizing that once the color of my skin would have denied me the right to vote,” Obama said. “And so that should give you some sense that if our country can transcend its differences, then yours can, too.”
Myanmar is home to 55 million people, many of whom have lived in near isolation for five decades while a military junta ruled the nation.
Obama launched a formal review of Myanmar in 2009, which led to discussions with the nation’s leaders. A 2010 election began a series of changes that included cease-fires in some ethnic conflicts, the release of political prisoners, loosened restrictions on the media and modified labor laws.
Myanmar announced Sunday that it would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume prison visits, invite the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to establish an office in Myanmar, review remaining prisoner cases of concern by the end of the year and work to reduce ethnic conflicts and human rights violations.
Earlier this year, Clinton became the first secretary of state in five decades to visit Myanmar after a year of political reforms that led the United States to lift sanctions and appoint a full ambassador to the nation.
As further incentive for change, Obama on Monday pledged $170 million in aid over two years as long as the government agreed to a host of changes, including ending its military relationship with North Korea.
“Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip,” Obama said in his speech. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished – they must be strengthened; they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”