Obama in Burma: U.S. President’s Landmark Visit Brings Hope, Criticism

President Obama's landmark stop in Burma has been met by skepticism by some in Washington, but was greeted with rapturous applause in Rangoon

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 19, 2012. It is the first visit to Burma by a sitting U.S. President

In a small but significant gesture, when talking with Thein Sein, the U.S. President referred to the nation as Myanmar, the name the Burmese government has used for 23 years, even though official American policy (like that of many Burmese democracy activists and ethnic leaders, as well as Western media) is to use the word Burma. In his university speech, Obama generally avoided referring to the country by name, only saying once that the U.S. had been one of the earliest nations to recognize the newly independent Union of Burma after it seized independence from the British in 1948.

(MORE: Burma’s Suu Kyi Dazzles Overseas but Faces Myriad Problems Back Home)

Despite praise for the new government, Obama also cautioned that Burma was only at the beginning of its democratic transition and had much more to accomplish. “Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation,” he said. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished.” He listed a host of problems facing Burma, including corruption, ethnic violence and the remaining political prisoners still in jail. (Dozens more prisoners of conscience were released in an amnesty that was timed to coincide with Obama’s trip.) Markedly in his speech, Obama mentioned Thein Sein only once, while glorifying Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi several times — although he did manage to mangle her name repeatedly. For her part, after their meeting at her villa, Suu Kyi cautioned how fragile the democratization process can be. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”

It was when Obama said that “no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation,” that he received his first round of applause from the University of Yangon audience. Despite the recently signed cease-fires, conflict still rages in northern Kachin state and deadly violence erupted earlier this year in Arakan (or Rakhine) state between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya residents. Burmese sentiment is clearly on the side of the Arakanese, with many considering the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh, a charge the Muslim population denies, saying they have lived in Burma for generations. The Arakan violence, which appears to have claimed more Rohingya lives than Arakanese ones, runs counter to the feel-good narrative emanating from Burma these days.

Yet Obama came to the defense of the ethnic group that the U.N. has called one of the most oppressed populations in the world, saying that 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 for the sake of this country’s future, it’s necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence.” To tie overall Burmese national reconciliation to the specific fate of the Rohingya may have been the one thing Obama said that jarred with the audience. Still, the few Muslims in the crowd were delighted. “I see what is happening in Rakhine, and I feel so sad that I can’t do anything,” said May Thiri Khin, a Muslim student who attended his speech. “I’m so glad President Obama mentioned this issue. Maybe it will help things get better.”

(MORE: Will Ethnic Violence Kill Burma’s Fragile Reforms?)

The audience that crowded the university’s Convocation Hall, which had been hastily patched up to welcome the U.S. President, was a motley crew. Senior officials in the Burmese army’s proxy party rubbed shoulders with former political prisoners. Ethnic leaders shared the space with business cronies who have made their fortunes by mining resources from ethnic areas that have seen little profit from their natural bounty. The one major missing element in the crowd: the men in green who still control much of the country. Burma’s President, for instance, must have a military background according to the constitution, and one-quarter of parliament is reserved for army men. Obama took the opportunity to point out the difference between the Burmese and American systems. “America may have the strongest military in the world, but it must submit to civilian control,” he said. “As President and Commander in Chief, I cannot just impose my will on our Congress, even though sometimes I wish I could.” The joke was caught only by the English-speaking members of the audience.

Above all, Obama used his speech to reiterate American commitment to Burma’s democratic experiment and offer up the U.S. as a democratic beacon. It might have seemed a preachy move by the President of a troubled superpower. But at Convocation Hall, Obama was speaking largely to the converted. After all, Burma is one of the few places in the world where Americans are regarded with true affection, as if they are the living embodiments of their nation’s democratic values. Outside the airport, Sein Hla Maung, a 31-year-old accounting instructor squatted on a hill with a direct line of sight to Air Force One on the tarmac. “I wanted to see the person who introduces democracy to the world,” he said in halting English. “Obama needs to come here and do negotiations for democracy.” Then Sein Hla Maung ticked off the multitude of problems facing Burma: a perilous health system, low education levels, creaky infrastructure. Perhaps Obama could catalyze change on all these issues, he suggested. Next to him, Ko Ni, a former labor striker who spent six years in jail, squatted with a handmade sign that read: “Welcome Americans. No Other Nation Has Full Human Rights and Democracy. We Need and Want Democracy. Do Help, by Americans, with Heart and Soul.”

Those are heavy expectations to place on one American who visited for a mere six hours — albeit one who promised Burmese that “the United States of America is with you.” (On Monday, the U.S. government announced $170 million in aid for Burma over the next two years through a restarted USAID program.) But the pace of change in Burma is similarly dizzying. Yes, there are manifold problems remaining; last week, the country’s auditor-general, for instance, reported on widespread corruption in 15 government ministries. Some human-rights groups are worried that Obama’s trip might send a message to the Burmese government that they can now ease off on reforms after an initial flush of action.

But Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and democracy activist, who was one of 14 civil-society members to briefly meet with Obama on Monday, saw it differently. “If we are always cautious to praise the government, always saying there are problems, this is not nice,” he said in his self-taught English honed at the American Center in Rangoon, a rare sanctuary run by the U.S. Embassy, where ordinary Burmese could come to read foreign newspapers and learn about democracy. “The right message for today is that we are appreciating what the government is trying to do, and we appreciate Mr. Obama for coming to our Burma to learn about our country. There is a lot more to do, but today, I think it is a day of happiness.”

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