What Does Obama’s Visit to Burma Mean for Burmese People?

The night before President Obama’s historic visit to Burma last month, Nge Nge—a Burmese woman from Rangoon—was so excited that she couldn’t sleep. In the morning, she was the first person to arrive at the University of Rangoon where Obama was scheduled to deliver his speech. Nge Nge had graduated from the University of Rangoon in 1988. Upon returning to her old stomping ground, she recalled, “This university used to be vibrant and warm with students who had close relationships with professors and had an enjoyable learning atmosphere. Students could ask professors if they did not understand something. Now, those times have gone.”

People in Burma had been eagerly anticipating a visit from Obama. Paintings with the words “Welcome Obama” adorned downtown Rangoon. On the morning of his arrival, Burmese people in different ethnic costumes arrived on foot, sweating and looking anxious. The event brought together a diverse cross-section of Burma’s population—people from different ethnic groups, academics, political leaders, people with disabilities, grassroots activists, journalists, and even human rights violators involved with land grabbing. Prominent people such as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the well-known economist U Myint, comedian and activist Zar Ganar, and two-time Myanmar Academy Award winning actor and film director Kyaw Thu came, too.

For many people, Obama’s arrival was an unprecedented symbol of hope. Obama is the first American president to visit Burma—a diverse country wedged between India and China, ripe with ethnic conflicts, and ruled by a dictatorial government for more than five decades.

But Obama’s visit also drew criticisms. Some believe it is too premature to support Burma’s new government. Others believe Obama has ulterior motives for American business interests or that he wishes to assert American power in order to balance Chinese influence in the region.

In his 30-minute speech, Obama covered many topics, including good governance, the importance of having a checks and balances system, Franklin Roosevelt’s four points on freedom, and the value of leveraging diversity to build a strong nation. He also pledged that the U.S. will work with Burma on the long road to democracy and prosperity. Acknowledging the reform undertaken by the Thein Sein government, Obama praised Suu Kyi’s incomparable courage and emphasized that “No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation.”

Obama also recognized the oppression of Burma’s ethnic minorities, namely the Rohingya people in the Rakhine region of Burma. “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution,” he remarked. “But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people [the Rohingya]. The Rohingya hold themselves—and hold within themselves—the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

Burmese people seem to agree that Burma has a long way to go to make freedom and democracy a reality. Nonetheless, people here in Rangoon are optimistic that progress is on the horizon, and Obama’s historic visit is cause for celebration.