RANGOON — When Arker Kyaw heard President Barack Obama was coming to Burma, he gathered 15 cans of spray paint and headed for a blank brick wall under cover of darkness.
Arker Kyaw, whose passion is graffiti, labored from 3 a.m. until the sun came up. Passing taxi drivers and the occasional pedestrian gave him signs of encouragement as Obama’s grinning, uplifted face took shape against a background of the American and Burma flags.
“I wanted to welcome him,” said Arker Kyaw, a 19-year-old with a sweep of styled hair and a penchant for skinny jeans.
The next day, someone — a rival graffiti artist, suspects Arker Kyaw — scribbled over his handiwork with a can of black spray paint.
Before dawn Saturday, as he watched for cops between tea breaks, he painted another wall with an image of Obama scrawled with the words “hello again.” He sees it as a shout out from the youth of Burma, and hopes Obama will glimpse it during his six-hour visit to the country, the first by a US president.
Word of Obama’s historic visit has spread quickly around Rangoon, which is readying itself with legions of hunched workers painting fences and curbs, pulling weeds and scraping grime off old buildings in anticipation of the president’s Monday arrival.
Some here read symbolic value into Obama’s itinerary. Obama is scheduled to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as President Thein Sein, who is widely credited with driving the country’s recent political and economic reforms. He will also deliver a speech at the University of Rangoon, which has been a seat of opposition since colonial times.
Obama will not visit Naypyidaw, the muscular, desolate capital built in the middle of scrubland at great expense by the country’s military leaders in 2006.
“I like that Obama will meet Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s a very good point,” said Than Lwin, a 47-year-old freelance teacher from Kachin state, where an armed insurgency continues.
“I’m glad he’s not going to Naypyidaw,” he added, laughing. “Naypyidaw is only the military.”
Many hope that Burma’s emerging friendship with the West will improve human rights in the country and help counterbalance the influence of neighboring China.
“I think America can work for the people. China only works for the government,” said Wizaya, a 47-year-old monk from Mandalay who goes by one name. “This is our expectation, that they will help us. Whether they help us depends on them.”
Others are less convinced and see in Obama’s trip an attempt to further America’s own economic and regional interests.
“This trip is not only for Burma,” said Hla Shwe, 75, who fought with communist rebels and spent 25 years as a political prisoner. “America wants to balance power between China and Southeast Asian nations.”
“For 50 years the American government did not help the Burmese people,” he added. “American companies will do business and cooperate with Burmese tycoons and authorities and high officials. All the benefits and interests will be for the Burmese authorities and their community. Not for the Burmese people.”
Among the many hungers in Burma is a desire for better stuff. One of the first things Paul Myahein, a 63-year-old English teacher, noticed after the military seized power in 1962 was a quick decline in the quality of toothpaste and soap. Many hope that warming ties with America will mean more and better things to buy.
Soe Wai Htun, a 21-year-old poet, said he had a lot of Chinese toys when he was a kid. “In our country, there are a lot of made-in-China toys,” he said. “They don’t have quality.” But when he talks about the single toy car that friends of the family sent from Florida, his hands cup the air as if he could still caress it today. America, he said, has “quality items.”
War War, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she’d really like to buy a car, a bed and a pillow from America.
“The products from America are better than the ones from China,” she said. “Most American products are expensive. We can’t afford to buy them.”
For Myathein, the English teacher, Obama’s visit is, he said, “a dream only.”
In 1963, Myathein became a member of the American Center, a cultural outpost of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon with a well-stocked lending library, a popular book club and English-language classes. Gatherings of more than five people were once banned in Burma and during those years, the American Center was one of few safe places for public debate.
Myathein took refuge there, burying himself in books of English grammar and George Orwell novels.
He holds up American culture as a model of something he tasted in childhood, which was ground out of his society during half a century of military dictatorship — a drive to question, the boldness to say no, the space to speak freely, take initiative and connect with the world at large. Burma is changing many political and economic policies, but for Myathein the more important, deeper transformation has yet to take place.
“Superficially, you think it’s quite OK, but if you penetrate deeper, you see the same thing. Everyone is the same. We don’t want to raise questions,” he said. “One thing I would like to say to Obama is give us a chance. Teach us to open up our mindset.”