Obama in historic Myanmar visit

Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar on Monday, praising the courage of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi while also providing a symbolic nod to initial reforms in a nation once notorious for political repression.

  • Published: 20/11/2012 at 02:06 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

He shared words and an awkward hug with the democracy leader and lauded her as a personal inspiration.

Later Monday, Obama held what an aide called a "tense" meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that emphasised the need for improving human rights in the nation hosting a summit of regional leaders.

The president met with Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where she spent years under house arrest for her pro-democracy activism. Obama called the meeting a new chapter between the two countries.

"Here, through so many difficult years, is where she has displayed such unbreakable courage and determination," Obama told reporters, standing next to Suu Kyi. "It is here where she showed that human freedom and human dignity cannot be denied."

In a diplomatic show of support, Obama referred to the country by the government's preferred name - Myanmar - rather than the colonial name of Burma used by Suu Kyi and democracy activists.

But the Associated Press reported that as Obama stood next to the world's most recognized democracy icon, he mispronounced her name repeatedly.

Ever gracious, Suu Kyi did not correct her American guest for calling her Aung YAN Suu Kyi multiple times during his statement to reporters after their meeting.

Proper pronunciation for the Nobel laureate's name is Ahng Sahn Soo Chee.

Obama also botched the name of his official host, Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein.

As the two addressed the media, Obama called his counterpart "President Sein," an awkward, slightly affectionate reference that would make most Burmese cringe.

Note to presidential advisers (wrote the AP): For future rounds of diplomacy, the president of Myanmar is President Thein Sein - on first and second reference.

The mistake by Obama is even more notable because he tries to please foreign audiences by correctly pronouncing words and names in their languages.

In once unthinkable scenes, Obama's motorcade passed tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters - some chanting "America" - lining the streets of Yangon, the backdrop for several bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy uprisings.

After a red-carpet welcome for Air Force One, Obama met Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein, hoping to embolden the former general to speed up the country's march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.

"This is just the first step on what will be a long journey," Obama told reporters as Thein Sein looked on.

Obama paid a brief visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a gold-plated spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies that is the spiritual centre of Burmese Buddhism.

During the Suu Kyi meeting, huge crowds could be heard chanting "Obama, freedom" in the streets nearby.

Obama said the goal of his trip was "to sustain the momentum for democratisation".

"That includes building credible government institutions, establishing rule of law, ending ethnic conflicts and ensuring that the people of this country have access to greater education, health care and economic opportunity," he said.

Suu Kyi for her part sounded a note of caution about the sweeping changes.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said. "We have to be very careful that we're not lured by the mirage of success."

The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will strengthen Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government.

The trip is seen as a political coup for Obama - albeit one with risks - and a major boost for Thein Sein, who has faced resistance from hardliners within his government to the rapid political changes.

Obama has stressed his visit is not an "endorsement" of its government but "an acknowledgement" of the reform process.

About the author

Writer: BangkokPost.com, from agency reports

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