Washington — Burma’s transition from decades of military rule toward democracy is a journey that has the potential to inspire many people across the world, President Obama told a Burmese audience during the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to the country.
Speaking at the University of Yangon November 19, Obama said, “This nation that's been so isolated can show the world the power of a new beginning, and demonstrate once again that the journey to democracy goes hand in hand with development.”
Praising Burma’s “dramatic transition” over the past year and a half, Obama pledged that the United States will support the Burmese people “every step of the way” in what he acknowledged will be a long and sometimes challenging process.
“America will support you … by using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by partnering with you as you connect your progress towards democracy with economic development,” he said.
While in Rangoon, Obama announced the reopening of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Burma and said the United States wants to help the country “reestablish its capacity to feed its people and to care for its sick, and educate its children, and build its democratic institutions” as it undertakes reforms.
Obama said the Burmese people must define for themselves what freedom means and then seize it.
“A true revolution of the spirit begins in each of our hearts. It requires the kind of courage that so many of your leaders have already displayed,” Obama said.
The Burmese people deserve a future where “a single prisoner of conscience is one too many, “ where “the law is stronger than any single leader, because it's accountable to the people,” where Burma’s national security is strengthened by a military that serves under civilians, and where a constitution guarantees that “only those who are elected by the people may govern,” he said.
“You need to reach for a future where no child is made to be a soldier and no woman is exploited, and where the laws protect them even if they're vulnerable, even if they're weak,” the president said.
After years of internal ethnic conflicts, he said, Burma has the opportunity to transform cease-fires into lasting peace settlements, and he urged an end to the persecution and discrimination against the country’s Rohingya population.
Every person shares the right to “live without the threat that their families may be harmed or their homes may be burned simply because of who they are or where they come from,” he said, telling the Burmese people that like the United States and other diverse countries, “you can draw on this diversity as a strength.”
Obama said that although the United States and Burma “became strangers” during Burma’s decades of military rule, Americans could witness the courage of the Burmese people, and it gave them hope.
“We saw the activists dressed in white visit the families of political prisoners on Sundays and monks dressed in saffron protesting peacefully in the streets. 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,” he said.
AN “ICON OF DEMOCRACY”
Americans have also been inspired by “the fierce dignity” of former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now an elected member of the Burmese parliament.
“She proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart,” he said.
Speaking with Suu Kyi November 19, Obama praised her as “an icon of democracy” in remarks at her residence, where she was held under house arrest for many years.
“It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied,” he said.
Suu Kyi said she is confident of continued U.S. support for Burma through difficult changes ahead.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. 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 and for the friendship between our two countries,” she said.
The president also met with Burmese President Thein Sein in Rangoon November 19. Thein Sein said Burma is committed to strengthening its relationship with the United States in the coming years.
Obama said he told Thein Sein that the government’s reforms toward democratization and releasing political prisoners will move Burma forward and help “unleash the incredible potential of this beautiful country.”
He also welcomed Thein Sein’s announcement that Burma has joined international nuclear nonproliferation efforts by accepting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, which enhances standards through which the IAEA can carry out its international safeguard responsibilities.