Obama Hails Myanmar’s Progress in First Visit

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Yangon in Yangon, Myanmar. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Barack Obama hailed Myanmar’s shift to democracy and urged more steps to increase freedom after a meeting with democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, during the first visit to the former military-ruled country by a U.S. president.

“Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers,” he said in a speech at Yangon University in the nation’s former capital. “But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you -- the people of this country. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage.”

The U.S. relaxed sanctions on Myanmar this year after President Thein Sein engaged with political opponents and eased media restrictions following his party’s victory in a 2010 election that ended five decades of direct military rule. Obama’s visit also reflects a legacy-building goal for a president about to enter a second term whose early efforts at engagement and democratization have yielded mixed results.

“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear,” Obama said. “I said in my inauguration address: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.”

Well-wishers lined the streets of Yangon as Obama arrived, taking pictures of his limousine with smart phones and iPads. He later visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, whose 325-foot (99-meter) tall gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies towers over Yangon.

‘First Steps’

“I recognize this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey,” Obama said in a joint briefing with Thein Sein, breaking with the U.S. practice of referring to the country as Burma. “But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities.”

Myanmar will “redouble our efforts” to develop democracy and “bring prosperity to our country,” Thein Sein, wearing a purple sarong known as a longyi, said at the briefing.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said afterward that the U.S. still refers to the nation as Burma, as does the opposition. Obama’s use of Myanmar was a “diplomatic courtesy” in his meeting with Thein Sein.

Locals chanted “Obama, Obama” as the president met with opposition leader Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she spent more than 15 years confined under house arrest. The daytime trip to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, was sandwiched between stops in Thailand and Cambodia, where Obama will join a regional summit later today.

‘Mirage of Success’

Obama called Suu Kyi “an icon of democracy, who’s inspired so many people not just in this country but all around the world.” Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose father led the fight for independence from Britain in the 1940s, spoke of the “difficult years that lie ahead” for Myanmar.

“I say difficult because the most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she told reporters from the covered terrace of her home. “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.”

Obama praised the government for allowing protests against the $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower dam across the Irrawaddy River being built with China Power Investment Corp., which Thein Sein halted last year because it was against the “will of the people.” He also called for civilian checks on the military, more freedom of expression and an end to religious and racial discrimination.

‘National Reconciliation’

Thein Sein’s government yesterday vowed to find a solution to end violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that has killed about 180 people this year and displaced more than 100,000. Many of Myanmar’s 64 million people view the country’s 800,000 Rohingya, who are denied citizenship, as illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh.

“There is no excuse for violence against innocents,” Obama said at Yangon University. “The Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

Myanmar’s government will “take decisive action to prevent violent attacks against civilians,” according to its statement. “It will hold accountable the perpetrators of such attacks; it will work with the international community to meet the humanitarian needs of the people; and it will address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.”

‘Undeserved Seal’

While Myanmar said before Obama’s visit that it granted amnesty to 452 prisoners, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said an undetermined number of political prisoners remain behind bars. Authorities released 66 more prisoners on Nov. 16, according to a statement late yesterday from Thein Sein’s office.

Obama’s trip “risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government that is still violating human rights,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement.

The decision to visit Myanmar reflects Obama’s belief that his presence can “lock in” progress there, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said on Nov. 15. The visit also has the backing of key Republicans in Congress.

“I want to commend him for going,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “It is an important step for him to take.”

The U.S. on Nov. 16 began easing a decade-long ban on imports from Myanmar, while still blocking jadeite and rubies. The administration is also taking initial steps to resume military relations, through discussions about humanitarian aid and non-lethal military ties, a senior U.S. defense official said a day earlier.

Untapped Market

Thein Sein adviser Nay Zin Latt said in an e-mail that Obama’s visit “will become a pull factor to attract foreign investments from the Western world.”

Situated on the Indian Ocean between China and India, Myanmar represents one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets. The nation’s economy will expand 6.2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said last month.

The U.S. sees the shifting political climate in Myanmar as an opening for new investments, exports and relations as Obama looks to reassert power in a region increasingly reliant on China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Chevron, Coca-Cola

The oil and gas industry accounted for 77 percent of the $3.8 billion in foreign investment in Myanmar from 2005 to 2010. ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. are scouting opportunities and Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. Inc. are returning to the country for the first time in about 15 years. MasterCard Inc. last week reached an agreement with a local bank to accept international ATM cards for the first time.

Obama heads next to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he’ll join meetings organized by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. There he’ll meet separately with leaders from China and Japan, which have sparred over disputed islands.

“The United States of America is a Pacific nation,” Obama said today. “We see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West. As our economy recovers, this is where we will find growth. As we end the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus of our efforts to build a prosperous peace.”

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