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.”

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
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

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain