Barack Obama becomes first US president to visit Burma, meeting Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein

 

Rangoon

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.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: [ Megan Smith 22/09/2014 17:00:...

Foundation and KS1 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Foundation and Key Stage 1...

Geography Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Temporary Teacher of GEOGRAPHY ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments