If Burma continues with its commitment to democratic reforms and ending ethnic conflict, the United States will offer its ongoing support in assisting to rebuild its crippled economy, US President Barack Obama said on Monday afternoon.
Addressing a crowd of some 1,300 people at Yangon University, and flanked by Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention an anxious security detail, the president was speaking during his six-hour trip to the former Burmese capital, and the first ever to the country by a US president.
“When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’” he said.
“And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip. Under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform.
“So today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship,” he said.
It was perhaps no coincidence that Obama referred to Burma’s previous years of dictatorship while delivering a speech at Yangon University, formerly Rangoon University, which was the scene of student uprisings in 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996, most of which were violently suppressed. The former military junta closed the campus in the 1990s fearing further unrest.
While praising President Thein Sein and noting the progress his government has made toward democratic reforms and improving freedom of speech for Burmese citizens, Obama noted that Burma still has to find a solution to its ethnic conflicts and to release all prisoners of conscience.
“On that journey, America will support you every step of the way: by using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by partnership with you as you connect your progress towards democracy with economic development.”
Obama stressed Burma’s need to aim for economic prosperity, and noted the US had lifted sanctions, now allowing American firms to invest in the country.
“But that kind of growth must leave corruption behind,” he cautioned.
When the 51-year-old president stressed the need for Burma, torn by long-running civil war and ethnic conflict, to achieve national reconciliation, the room erupted in deafening applause.
The bloody conflict in Burma’s western Rakhine State also needs to be addressed, as does the debate over citizenship, said the Hawaiian-born president, explaining that the US is also a nation of immigrants.
Seated between Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Suu Kyi visibly enjoyed a lengthy discussion with Claire Mitchell, the wife of the new US Ambassador Derek Mitchell before the US President began his speech.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate received her standard rock star welcome as, dressed in peach and dark green, she greeted dignitaries and posed for photos with a surging crowd armed with smiles, Smart Phones and cameras.
Obama concluded his remarks the same way he began, by addressing the audience in their own language, if only to say “thank you”; but it was enough for this Burmese audience, whose enthusiasm for the American almost matched that for Suu Kyi.
Obama left at 3:40 pm for Rangoon airport where he was due to fly immediately to Phnom Penh to participate in the current ASEAN summit.