Obama, in Burma speech: ‘We always remained hopeful about you’
By David Nakamura,
RANGOON, Burma — For 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi waited in her lakeside villa, confined to the small plot of land under house arrest, dreaming of her return to the world.
On Monday, the world, or a big piece of it, came calling on her.
The gates, topped with barbed wire, swung open, and a black presidential limousine pulled into the driveway. Out stepped President Obama, pressing his hands together and bowing ever so slightly — a gesture the Burmese democracy leader, dressed in a green scarf, peach blouse and black sarong, returned.
They shook hands, and then another figure rushed forth and hugged her in a long, emotional embrace. It was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And outside the gates, a crowd had gathered and could be heard chanting: “Obama! Freedom!”
The leaders of the free world had come with a message of hope for 60 million Burmese, but it was this bow and this hug that symbolized the most — a scene almost unimaginable just two years ago when Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, was still a prisoner in her own home and Burma was ruled by a repressive military junta.
Released in 2010, she is now a member of parliament, and she visited Obama at the White House in September.
“I’m proud to be the first American president to visit this spectacular country, and I am very pleased that one of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world,” Obama told reporters in a brief appearance with Suu Kyi after they met privately.
He added: “Here, through so many difficult years, is where she displayed such unbreakable courage and determination. It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.”
Stop on Asia tour
The president’s stop here was the first of two that made history Monday as he continued his trip through Asia, the region he believes holds the most promise for American economic growth and security in the coming decades.
Obama flew from Burma to Cambodia, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit that country as well. Both nations have dismal human rights records, and Obama used his stop here to both celebrate the gradual democratic opening underway and warn that its progress should not be impeded.
The outpouring of support for Obama and his delegation from throngs of Burmese citizens marked a high point of a trip that has been shadowed by the deadly conflict in the Middle East, where Israel is striking targets in the Gaza Strip to suppress Palestinian rocket fire.
Obama has been trying to reorient American foreign policy from the greater Middle East, where more than a decade of war has dominated the country’s diplomatic and military resources, to the growing powers of Asia.
At nearly every stop on a three-nation Asia tour, though, Obama has been reminded that the Middle East is likely to remain the most demanding region — requiring the most diplomatic attention and holding the most immediate peril for the United States and its allies — for the rest of his time in office. Obama has reached out repeatedly by phone to the leaders of Israel, Turkey and Egypt seeking ways to resolve the Gaza conflict.
He also enlisted Clinton to call her counterparts in Qatar, France and Turkey. She and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon briefed Obama on Monday at the U.S. Embassy in Burma.
But outside the embassy walls it was this country, at least for a day, that provided a hopeful backdrop for the president and his entourage. Obama and Clinton — probably on their last trip together before she departs the administration — rode in the presidential motorcade past thousands of cheering residents, many waving small American flags in front of a mix of ramshackle buildings and more modern-looking billboards hawking coffee and kitchen appliances.
“Mr Obama we ♥ you Legend, hero of our world,” read one sign in the crowd.
The visit also held reminders of the difficult balancing act that the Obama administration is attempting here. After meeting with President Thein Sein, the civilian leader who took control of the country from the junta, Obama for the first time referred to the country as “Myanmar,” the name used by the nation’s own leaders. Aides said later that Obama’s word choice was intended as a courtesy but no more.
The U.S. government’s policy has been to continue using “Burma” — the English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one used by the opposition when speaking English. In 1989, a year after brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta changed the name of the country in English from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.
The protests during that period spread across much of Burma, leading to a military crackdown that killed thousands of citizens. Suu Kyi emerged as a leading opposition figure, and a year later her pro-democracy party won a parliamentary majority, although the military junta refused to give up power.
More recently, a group of monks led the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, which was put down violently after several weeks.
“For the past 20 years, there were some disappointments and obstacles in our diplomatic relations,” Thein Sein, wearing a purple saronglike longyi, said after meeting with Obama. He added that the two countries had “reached agreements on the development of democracy in Myanmar.”
Obama aides announced that the United States would reestablish the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in the country and offer up to $170 million in financial assistance over two years, contingent on Burmese action to implement democratic policies and stem ongoing ethnic violence against the Muslim minority.
For its part, the Burmese government announced a series of pledges, including allowing human rights activists to visit prisons, inviting the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a local office and reviewing the cases of 200 or so political prisoners remaining from military rule.
Human rights activists, who had lobbied the White House to cancel Obama’s trip to Burma, hailed the new commitments.
“They show that Burma values the friendship of the United States and that the Obama administration remains committed to using that friendship to promote human rights,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
In the afternoon, Obama arrived at Yangon University, a center of pro-democracy demonstrations nearly 25 years ago. Once called Rangoon University, the school has an illustrious history featuring alumni such as Suu Ki’s father, Aung San, a renowned general who led Burma to independence from British rule.
Closed by the government for much of the 1990s for fear of renewed student protests, the university has since fallen into disrepair. Officials hope Obama’s visit will help boost its fortunes.
“I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity,” the president told hundreds of students in a lecture hall as Clinton, Suu Kyi and U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell sat in the front row. “Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you — the people of this country.”
He cautioned against complacency, saying the “flickers of progress . . . must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
Earlier in the day, after her meeting with Obama, Suu Kyi sounded a similar warning: “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working to a genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.”
In front of the television cameras, she leaned in toward the president, and he kissed her on both cheeks.
Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.