Barack Obama made history today - becoming the first sitting US president to visit Burma and telling a packed audience that he had come to bear witness to a dramatic transformation he believed was underway.
Dismissing the appeals of many observers who said it was too early to reward Burma’s nominally-civilian government with such a high profile and significant visit, Mr Obama said he believed the military dictatorship whose hold on power had spanned five decades had finally loosened its grip.
On his six-hour visit to the country – the last member of the White House to visit Burma was Richard Nixon, serving as vice president, in 1953 – Mr Obama met both with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” said Ms Suu Kyi, who was released from detention two years and one week ago.
The most significant part of Mr Obama visit, before he left to attend an Asean summit in Cambodia, was a speech he gave at the convocation hall of the University of Yangon. Speaking about a once close-relationship between the US and Burma, in a delivery that lasted around 20 minutes, Mr Obama said that in recent decades the “two countries became strangers”.
But he referred to a comment he made after he was first elected in which he said the US was ready to reach out to those previously hostile governments who would “unclench” their fists. “And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip. Under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform,” added Mr Obama. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”
During his speech in a hastily-repainted hall into which light flooded through a roof of green, blue and white glass, Mr Obama turned his attention to many of the issues that activists feared he may ignore. He said that if Burma – or Myanmar as he referred to the country once – were to advance, those in power had to realise that power must be controlled. As commander-in-chief of the military of the world’s most powerful country, it was he, a civilian, who told the army what to do and not the other way around.
He also referred to the issue of political prisoners, saying that a single prisoners of conscience was one too many. Although the authorities released several dozen more prisoners ahead of Mr Obama’s visit, it is estimated that up to 300 are still behind bars. He also referred to the violence in western Rakhine state and the Rohingya Muslim population that has suffered much discrimination and violence since the summer.
“There is no excuse for violence against innocents. 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 this country’s future, it is time to stop the incitement and violence,” he said.
The US president, whose television delivery was likely watched by millions of people who clustered around television sets in tea shops or at homes, received two rounds of applause from his audience. The first was when he said no process of reform could succeed without national reconciliation and the second when he referred to a saying from the US which noted that the most important office was that of the citizen, not the president.
Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to welcome Mr Obama as his convoy made its way through Rangoon, stopping off at the Shwedagon pagoda, which in September 2007 became a gathering place for pro-democracy marchers and Buddhist monks.
Lots of people welcomed his visit and there were crowds at every intersection he passed, many yelling affectionately for both him and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “You are the legend hero of our world,” said one banner, according to the Associated Press.
Papa Khin, a 37-year-old woman who was eating breakfast early yesterday morning in the city centre on her way to a job with an aid organisation, said change was happening fast, even though there remained much to do. “There is a long way to go before there is complete change,” she said.
Mr Obama’s audience of government officials, politicians, students and even some former political prisoners also appeared to largely welcome his speech. Paw Oo Tun, better known by his alias Min Ko Naing and who was released earlier this year after being sentenced to 65 years for his pro-democracy campaigning, was among them.
Mr Naing, a member of the 88 Students Generation and a former student of the University of Rangoon, said he welcomed the fact that the president had recognised the role of the institution as the site of the first opposition to colonial rule, the place where Ms Suu Kyi’s father and the country’s first president, Aung San, edited a magazine and where more recently students had organised democracy protests in the 1980s and 1990s.
“As a former student, I deeply appreciated that,” Mr Naing told The Independent. “This means that over time the truth will come out. You cannot make it fade away.”