RANGOON—Hours before Obama took the stage at Rangoon University on Monday, the US Secret Service carefully combed the historic convocation hall.
Invited guests were happy to wait for hours even though they were forced to walk to the renowned seat of learning after police blocked several roads around downtown.
From the moment that Air Force One landed in the former capital, throngs of people came out to welcome the 44th US president. En route to his speech everyone on the street seemed happy and excited to be welcoming him.
“Why Rangoon?” people asked with a wry smile. They knew the answer and were gleefully celebrating a small victory as if Naypyidaw was an old foe.
Everyone agrees that Obama sent a strong message to the government by not going to the new capital, and also chose the correct venue to deliver his speech. All my old friends and colleagues who studied at Rangoon University were delighted by his decision.
At a teashop opposite the university’s main entrance the previous day, some former students told me how they had come to the same spot for years only to find that the gate was always locked. But they were delighted to finally see it unchained and workers hurriedly painting walls and repaving the roads. “This is ridiculous,” one said. “I wish [Obama] would come to visit our country every year!”
Ko Win Maung, a former geologist, said with a broad smile, “Obama came to reopen our university … Thank you Mr. President!”
Si Thu, an old friend who used to study there, told me, “If I have a chance to grab him, I want to show him not far from the university where the massacre took place!” Indeed, it was as if Obama was deliberately intending to please my colleagues and ordinary Burmese people rather than the government or former junta leaders.
“I came here because of my respect for this university,” the president said during his speech. “It was here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took hold. It was here that Aung San edited a magazine before leading an independence movement.
“It was here that U Thant learned the ways of the world before guiding it at the United Nations. Here, scholarship thrived during the last century and students demanded their basic human rights.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Gen Aung San, was sitting in the audience next to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.
Prominent leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were also present, yet all attention was fixed on Suu Kyi, then Clinton and then to revered monk Sitagu Sayadaw and democracy activists Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi when they entered the room.
I noticed everyone applauded and started taking pictures when these legendary figures arrived. Smart phones, iPads and cameras clicked and flashed with little attention paid to the leaders of the party in power.
Obama admitted in his speech that he was inspired by Burma’s democracy struggle. “We saw activists dressed in white visit the families of political prisoners on Sundays and monks dressed in saffron protesting peacefully in the streets,” he said.
“We learned of ordinary people who organized relief teams to respond to a cyclone, and heard the voices of students and the beats of hip-hop artists projecting the sound of freedom. We came to know exiles and refugees who never lost touch with their families or their ancestral home. And we were inspired by the fierce dignity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart.”
Thant Myint-U, grandson of late UN Secretary-General U Thant, thought the speech was well crafted and aimed to embolden the people of Burma. The presidential adviser, historian and author of several books on Burma believed the visit was timely and would serve as a confidence boost for reformists in the government.
Yet some of the old guard remained concerned that US engagement would upset China, Burma’s powerful neighbor. Obama said that the US welcomed the peaceful rise of China in his speech, but focused more on another ally of the former junta.
“And here in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia: We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past,” he said. “We need to look forwards to the future. To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.”
A business tycoon told me that Obama’s visit and speech would no doubt create discomfort amongst the Chinese leadership. He said that the crowds welcoming Obama demonstrated that Burmese people endorsed the US president’s stance on democracy and human rights, although some cynics will say they were simply paying lip service.
The tycoon said China does not want to see Burma becoming a democratic nation. “China doesn’t want to be infected by this democratic fever in our country,” he said. Indeed, prior to the Obama visit the government sent top ranking military official Gen Soe Win to visit Beijing to strengthen defense ties.
It is too early to say how Burma, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which will become bloc chair in 2014, will play foreign policy coming out of China’s shadow. To Thant Myint-U, so far Burma has been very much inward-looking and it is time to be more proactive and think globally.
Senior sources tell me that Obama’s meeting with President Thein Sein went well. Separately, he also met with Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint, the speakers of Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament.
I was surprised to see there was even a debate on how the Burmese people should welcome Obama. A business tycoon who was on the US sanctions list and followed events from his posh office was furious.
“Why don’t they invite him for lunch?” he said. I smiled and checked whether he was kidding. No he wasn’t. “I think President Thein Sein should invite him for a Burmese lunch to ask for more business and lift remaining sanctions,” he said.
“I am sure the Americans would love to have Burmese lunch,” he added. “Then we can become like friends.” Then he said that everyone should go out and welcome Obama. “I think the roads should not be blocked—I think the government should ask everyone to go out and welcome the US president!”
However, his visit is not without controversy. Some Arakanese politicians at the event were upset the president mentioned the “Rohingya,” which they insist do not existent in Burma. Some ethnic leaders complained that he did not mention federalism in his speech. Others simply said that he came here to promote Suu Kyi and campaign for her victory in the 2015 general election. I then realized just how much expectation was on the leader of a superpower.
To many Burmese political activists and former political prisoners, Obama’s speech and choice of venue were significant. This is the first time in history that a sitting US president has visited the military-dominated nation and delivered a speech filled with democracy, human rights and freedom from fear. In the past, mentioning these words would mean jail time in Burma.
Obama didn’t need to worry. He brought his Secret Service to protect him, he is the leader of the world’s largest superpower and, as one diplomat described the present situation, “Burma needs America more than America needs Burma—if America feels that something is not right, they can always walk away.”
Knowing his leverage, Obama delivered his speech well and touched on almost every contentious subject in Burma—sectarian violence, racism, discrimination, national reconciliation, long-running insurgencies and peace.
To most in the audience, his flying thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean to deliver a 30-minute speech was well worth the effort. They found inspiration in his words.