Monday, 19 November 2012

Endorsing Change in Myanmar

Barack Obama embraces Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon
History was made today when Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Myanmar which is fast opening up after decades of military rule and isolation.

He literally stopped traffic as crowds of people snuck out to the streets to see his motorcade. Reporters say the spontaneous gathering of people in a country where mass demonstrations are usually forced, was striking.

"We have never had the visit of a president from a big country like America," said Win, an office worker in Yangon. "I came here because we believe that President Obama will be a big strength for Myanmar's democratic reforms as he is a world-recognized leader for democracy.

"We want him to know that Myanmar people love him and have high expectations of him to actively participate in Myanmar's democratic reforms. And we also hope that he will help Daw [Aung Sang] Suu [Kyi] in her efforts for the country," she said.

These are high hopes for the Burmese, but can Obama deliver?

He vowed to "support you every step of the way."

In one of his first appointments during the six-hour visit he met with President Thein Sein and then opposition leader and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi escorted by Hillary Clinton and Obama
Obama embraced and kissed the fellow Nobel laureate, saying she "has been an inspiration to people all around the world, including myself. Clearly you will be playing a key role in your country's future for many years to come as Burma seeks the freedom and the prosperity and the dignity that not only the people of this country deserve but people all around the world deserve."

Human rights activists had said that Suu Kyi had privately counseled against Obama's trip, saying it might be premature, was cautious in sounding too optimistic.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she warned. "Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success."

He promised the United States Agency for International Development would return to Myanmar and also $170 million for projects in the next two years.

While some critics said Obama should not come to Myanmar as there are still hundreds of political prisoners and there is still violence in parts of the country, he used the occasion to encourage the country to move forward towards further democracy.

At the University of Yangon the president said in a speech, "That is how you must reach for the future you deserve, a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many. You need to reach for a future where the law is stronger than any single leader."

We are pleased to see one of Obama's first stops after being re-elected is to Myanmar, giving a psychological boost to the country and endorsing for moving it towards greater democracy, with a former general in power and finally allowing Suu Kyi to run in elections.

Who would have forseen that less than two years ago?

"This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," Obama said, before heading to Yangon. "This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago nobody foresaw. I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time."

We hope that with Obama's visit, even more changes will happen for the better.

What is even more interesting is China's reaction to the visit -- as Myanmar had been under Beijing's wing for a long time and now with democracy happening so quickly, China must be wondering what's going on. More importantly it probably fears its own people getting the same idea...

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