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November 21, 2012

US President Barack Obama visits Myanmar

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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Obama meets with Thein Sein
Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

United States President Barack Obama Monday became the first US President to visit the Asian country of Myanmar.

Locals left their jobs to watch President Obama’s motorcade drive down the streets of Yangon. In addition to speaking at the University of Yangon, he also spoke with the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein; and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

President Thein Sein told President Obama that their countries were in a “progressing” relationship. President Obama told Suu Kyi, an activist under the former regime who became a member of parliament in the new one, that her example “has been inspiration to people all around the world, including myself. Clearly you will be playing a key role in your country’s future for many years to come as Burma seeks the freedom and the prosperity and the dignity that not only the people of this country deserve but people all around the world deserve.”

When he spoke at the University of Yangon, Obama emphasized the former connections between the two countries. He also emphasized America’s democratic system and explained that Myanmar should follow America’s lead. “You need to reach for a future where the law is stronger than any single leader, because it’s accountable to the people”, he said.

Obama speaks at University of Yangon
Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Although many residents here are excited about the visit as proof of new democracy, others are more skeptical of such change. Thein Sein was a member of the former military government. Aung San Suu Kyi was only released two years ago from house-arrest that lasted nearly two decades under that government. There is speculation that there are still hundreds of political prisoners under the custody of the government. Violence is an issue in the Kachin State; and Associated Press reports over 110,000 refugees in Rakhine State. Major cities like Yangon seem almost ahead of themselves in capital, with a lack of hotel and office space; while the rural areas are still very primitive.

Zaw Nay Aung, an exile living in Great Britain and director of the Burma Independence Advocates research group, criticized the president’s visit on several counts. He called Thein Sein an ex-general who still leads the country despite their new government. “The ruling elites have been waiting for this moment since they came into power nearly two years ago. The U.S. approval of the country’s reform process has been one of the core political objectives that the regime has tried to secure since transitioning into power”, he said. He also criticized President Obama, calling it “a disgrace for the U.S. president to make such a historic trip to Burma while hundreds of political prisoners still remain in jails”.

Eyes are also on China, which neighbors Myanmar. The two countries had similar policies and were friends. Now, with the President’s visit; the US could be appearing to be “courting” Myanmar. This will especially be an issue in 2015, when Myanmar will be having an election.

The visit was overshadowed by conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Myanmar is the second country the president visited in a three-country, four-day tour of the Middle East. Prior to his trip to Myanmar; the president and secretary of state were in Thailand, and afterwards they went to Cambodia, where human rights are expected to be a major issue.


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