By David Stout
President Obama pledged to support Burma’s nascent reform period but called on the country’s citizens to push for national reconciliation after decades of civil war and military rule.
After Air Force One touched down in Rangoon on Monday, the American leader and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were greeted by thousands of people who lined Rangoon’s streets waving American flags and signs written in broken English.
Obama met with Burmese President Thein Sein at the regional parliament building before sitting down with Aung San Suu Kyi at the opposition leader’s lakeside villa.
The highlight of the US president’s trip came during a rousing speech at Rangoon University, in which he lauded the country’s ongoing reform process, addressed the recent unrest in Arakan state and ceasefires with ethnic groups.
“No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation,” said President Obama, which received a roaring applause from the packed auditorium.
Obama went on to compare Burma’s struggle to unite its diverse country with America’s own history of war and racism.
“We have tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede, and the lines between races and tribes fade away.”
Officials worked frantically over the weekend to get the auditorium at Rangoon University into shape before the presidential address. Little renovation has been undertaken at the university, which has been periodically closed during the past 50 years by the former junta in an effort to silence dissent generated by students.
Obama’s visit comes nearly a year after Hillary Clinton embarked on her landmark trip to Burma followed by the gradual suspension of sanctions. On Friday, US officials announced that they were dropping an import ban targeting Burma and today revealed plans to open a USAID mission in the country.
However, several human rights organizations have questioned whether Obama’s trip is premature, as the Burmese military continues its offensive against the Kachin Independence Army in the north and hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars across the country.
To coincide with the visit, Burma’s government officials announced plans to release 66 prisoners on Monday, 45 of which were political dissidents and ethnic minorities from rebel armies.
The move follows the release of more than 400 prisoners last week, but according to rights groups none of the freed inmates were political dissidents.
“It is very worrisome that the November 15 prisoner release apparently did not include a single political prisoner – the message the leaders in Naypidaw are sending is they think they can play political games with human rights and Obama and the international community will look the other way,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
“The success or failure of President Obama’s trip to Burma should be judged by whether he actually gets firm commitments from the Burma President on human rights,” said Robertson.
“A government doesn’t get a much bigger endorsement than a bilateral visit from a US President, and the US government should have used that leverage to get public commitments from Thein Sein.”
Following afternoon prayers at a mosque off 40th street in downtown Rangoon on Sunday, Safiyan Jamal, 35, said he hoped Obama’s trip would lead to the better treatment of Muslims in Burma in the wake of the violent clashes in Arakan state that broke out in June and October.
“All Muslim people will be happy because Obama is coming to our country – they will be helped,” said Safiyan Jamal. “We haven’t any human rights. We’re [treated] like animals in our country.”
During a press conference in Bangkok on Sunday, Obama was quick to stress that the trip was not an endorsement of the Burmese government, but rather the visit aimed to support the country’s ongoing reforms.
“I am not somebody who thinks that the United States should just stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there is an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside the country,” said President Obama, according to a report in the AFP.
Fresh off a successful re-election campaign, Obama’s fifth trip to the region seeks to reinforce the country’s ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia as the US seeks to divest from its theatres of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan and refocus its diplomatic efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s economic influence reigns supreme.
“I think the US wants to give Myanmar [Burma] options rather than get involved in a cold war with China. It wants to compete, not dominate,” said David Dapice, an economist with the Myanmar Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“This is the 21st century, not the 20th and China is not the USSR. It has been and will remain influential, but it should not be the only relevant game in town. It is completely logical for Myanmar to have good relations with the US and China (and Japan and the EU…) rather than fall into one camp or another.”
In a teashop in central Rangoon on Friday, a group of university students chatted enthusiastically about the country’s potential development.
“I want to be more influenced by America because this is democracy, you know. This country is going to be a democracy, so I want to be influenced by other big democracies,” said Kaung Zaw, a 19-year-old studying computer science.
But just a few tables away, Tin Htut was less than willing to discuss current events and Burma’s transition from military to civilian rule.
“Politics, I don’t know about politics,” said Tin Htut, who has spent the majority of his 83 years under military rule.
The former civil servant said he feared that the government’s intelligence agents could be listening to the conversation.
Farther from the city centre in the municipal hinterlands, little has changed.
In Dala township, Kyan Sit Thar village has seen little of the development that’s beginning to transform downtown Rangoon just a few kilometers away.
Most of the men work as day labourers in Rangoon for a few dollars per day while the women stay at home with children. The village’s school was destroyed in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis and has not been rebuilt. Most of the families in the area cannot afford the transportation costs necessary to send their children further a field for an education.
While Aye Thin, 41, was excited to hear about President’s Obama’s visit to Burma and wants the country develop quickly, her only hope at the moment is to one day ‘sell their land and relocate to central Rangoon’.
“The land prices are going up. Other than that, it’s no different,” said Aye Thin. “Life is hard here.”