In May 2008, as Burma reeled from Cyclone Nargis, its worst ever natural disaster that claimed more than 130,000 lives, a rumor began floating through the darkened, tree-felled streets of Rangoon, the country’s largest city. Would the Americans stage a humanitarian intervention to aid the millions of storm victims that the long-ruling military junta was ignoring?
More than four years later, on the morning on Nov. 19, a U.S. government plane finally touched down at Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport. It was not there to invade one of the world’s most isolated nations, as Burma’s army rulers feared might happen at the height of their cloistered paranoia. Instead, Air Force One navigated Rangoon’s worn runway and rolled past a thicket of tropical foliage to make Barack Obama the first ever U.S. President to visit this strategic nation wedged between India and China. Outside the airport, schoolchildren lined the street, waving Burmese and American flags. “I love Mr. Obama,” said 14-year-old Min Myat No Khin. “I love America. I love democracy.”
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Just a few years ago, each of those three sentiments, even if expressed by a pigtailed student, might have been prisonable offenses. But in a Burma now ruled by a hybrid military-civilian government, the culture of fear that smothered the country for nearly half a century has largely evaporated. Obama’s historic visit served to validate the efforts of Burma’s new rulers, who took over in March 2011 after a political transition managed by the former junta. Helmed by President Thein Sein, a retired general with the potential to become a Burmese Gorbachev, the country officially known as Myanmar is attempting a rare feat: a democratic awakening spurred not by the footfall of protesting citizens but by the rulers themselves.
Obama’s Asia trip, his first foreign outing since his re-election, includes stops in Thailand and Cambodia. But it was with Burma that the U.S. President was making his strongest statement. Shortly after taking office, Obama eased American foreign policy toward greater engagement with Burma’s generals. Naysayers predicted that the clutch of xenophobic generals would not respond. But for whatever reason, Burma’s opening soon followed. For an American leader who calls himself the country’s “first Pacific President” and has pivoted U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in an effort to hedge China, the good news coming out of Burma couldn’t have occurred at a more opportune time. The lessons of the Arab Spring, by contrast, are far more complicated for the President to parse.
Burma’s new leadership was ushered in by flawed polls in 2010 and is bound by an even more flawed constitution. Nevertheless, Thein Sein’s government has introduced a raft of substantive reforms, allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to participate in April polls that resulted in her becoming an elected member of parliament, hacking away at press censorship, releasing political prisoners and signing cease-fires with some of the ethnic militias that had been battling the central government for decades. In return, the U.S., like many other Western nations, has eased the economic sanctions that had further isolated an already reclusive regime and pushed it into China’s economic embrace. Just a few months ago, the Rangoon airport where Obama landed was decorated with advertisements for local instant-coffee brands and jewelry companies owned by the regime’s cronies. Now, the biggest sign in baggage claim is a Coca-Cola advertisement: “Cola Welcome to Myanmar.”
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Obama’s visit, just six hours long, packed in enough action to rival a Japanese package tourist’s itinerary. He met with the Burmese President; hugged Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa, where she was kept under house arrest for so many years; engaged with civil-society activists, including monks, former dissidents and labor organizers; toured the country’s holiest site, the golden spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda; and finally capped his afternoon with a speech at the University of Yangon, where the audience was warmed up with an all-American soundtrack of Miles Davis, Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald. Once known as Rangoon University, the school was an educational jewel of the British Empire and teethed on dissent. It was there that some of Burma’s leading anticolonialist thinkers honed their activism, including Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Aung San. It was also there in 1988 that students rose up against the army leaders in Burma’s own version of the Tiananmen Massacre, a democratic uprising with the same violent, tragic end. Since then, the original campus has moldered, with nearly all students forced to study on the outskirts of town, lest they rally against the government once again. Once boasting high education-and-health standards in Asia, Burma is now one of the continent’s laggards because of the government’s gross economic mismanagement.
But if the site of Obama’s speech implicitly honored the democratic yearnings of Burma’s stifled people, the U.S. President also gave the new government its due. “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said. “So today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.” Earlier Thein Sein, during his joint remarks with Obama, returned the compliment — this from a man who spent years as part of a rabidly anti-American junta. “For the first 20 years, there were some difficulties and obstacles in our bilateral relations,” he said. “But, however, when President Obama took office in the United States, and because of the visions, a re-engagement policy of the President … our bilateral relations have been progressing steadily.”
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.
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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.”
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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.”