Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Yangon on Monday, desperate for a glimpse of something no one had ever seen in their country before: a president of the United States. “O-bam-a!” the sarong-clad crowds chanted, waving and holding signs. “O-bam-a!”
President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president ever to set foot in the country, a nation in Southeast Asia isolated for decades under military rule but now emerging as a democracy. He used his visit to the country formerly known as Burma to highlight the nation’s successes as it moves toward democracy while urging the government to go even further to release political prisoners, help halt ethnic fights and stop human rights violations.
“I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity,” Obama said in the major address of his trip to Southeast Asia. “Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country, about you. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage.”
At a quick six hours, Obama’s stop in Myanmar was a small part of a four-day trek that stopped first in Thailand and then took him to Cambodia for an Asian summit later Monday. But Myanmar was the emotional highlight of the trip, and the keystone of his message of democracy, freedom and human rights. In Cambodia, Obama had what aides called a “tense” conversation with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen about human rights. In Myanmar, the message was cheered, at least in public.
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Obama drew more crowds when he visited famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi outside her manicured lakeside estate, where she spent 15 years under house arrest before being elected to Parliament.
The two leaders greeted each other like old friends before retreating into her home for a brief talk as onlookers shouted “Freedom!” outside her gates. Obama and Suu Kyi emerged a short time later to address a throng of international media camped out on her lawn.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” Suu Kyi said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”
In Yangon, signs of capitalism are everywhere. Billboards, written in English, advertised Samsung, Panasonic and Rolex products while hotels are at capacity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced Monday that it will co-host a symposium in February in Yangon, hoping to spur American investments in Myanmar’s economy that will contribute to a “more stable and open society.”
But changes have not impacted many who live in dilapidated parts of the city and outside the nation’s capital. Human rights organizations criticized Obama for visiting Myanmar, complaining that more than 200 political prisoners remain behind bars, more than 100,000 people have been displaced by disputes among ethnic groups and the government continues to approve or even contribute to violence in the Kachin and Rakhine states.
In his conversation with President Thein Sein, Obama referred to the nation as Myanmar, even though Suu Kyi and her supporters prefer Burma, the name used before the military takeover.
“For the past 20 years there were some disappointments and obstacles in our diplomatic relations,” Sein told reporters. He credited Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with helping spur progress. “We reached agreements on the development of democracy in Myanmar.”
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.”