Change was in the Air as Obama Took Center Stage for the Day

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

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RANGOON — Four years after first coming to power under a banner of “change,” newly re-elected US President Barack Obama finally delivered on his promise on Monday in a country half-way around the world.

Many of the changes that Obama brought to Burma when he arrived for his historic visit were mundane: flight schedules at Rangoon’s international airport had to be juggled to accommodate his arrival and departure, and pot-holes had to be filled to make the right impression. Burmese law enforcement personnel also got a makeover, with new uniforms and a fleet of shiny new police vans. Even the convocation hall of the long-neglected gem of Burmese higher education, Rangoon University, got a facelift—including a coat of paint fresh enough for the 51-year-old president to catch a whiff of thinner when he took the podium there to deliver a much-anticipated speech.

Other changes were more difficult to put your finger on, but no less palpable. There was an excitement in the air, as everyone from ordinary citizens to security forces in Burma’s largest city seemed caught up in an enthusiasm that other visiting international dignitaries could only envy. Even a graffiti artist whose work—a wall-sized portrait of the American president—was vandalized three times, allegedly by rival artists, remained upbeat and determined to let Obama know how much his visit was appreciated.

But it wasn’t just the person in the street who saw this historic visit—the first ever by a sitting US president—as a sign of far-reaching changes in the relationship between two long-estranged nations.

“The US president’s trip means the United States has begun to focus more on Burma. It also means they have the political will to engage with Burma. It’s a good sign for anyone here who wants the democratic transition to succeed,” said author and Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, speaking to The Irrawaddy shortly after Obama’s speech.

Hours before Air Force One, the president’s blue and white Boeing 747, landed on the cloudy Nov. 19 morning, the road to Yangon International Airport was less busy than usual. Instead of cars, however, hundreds of high school students with miniature flags of Burma and the US lined both sides of the road to welcome the US president.

The Buddhist monk Ashin Nagathina, 36, woke up at 3 o’clock that morning to recite the Metta Sutta for the president’s well-being and to pray for his safety during the trip. At eight, he and 19 other monks joined the hundreds of people who flocked to the airport to greet their country’s honored guest.

“His visit shows that our country is no longer neglected, so we have to warmly welcome him,” said the monk. “We also need to let him know what we want,” he added, pointing to a poster he was holding that bore the words, “Warmly Welcome President Obama. Please help us in moving forward with Democracy.”

A little over an hour after Obama set foot in Burma, people started to descend on the leafy University Avenue, heading towards the residence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where the US president was scheduled to visit after a meeting with his Burmese counterpart, ex-general Thein Sein. Most were hoping to catch a glimpse of the man they had only ever seen on TV or in newspapers.

“Has Mr Obama’s plane landed? Where is he now? Is it true that he is going to see Aunty Suu?” one young woman in her early twenties asked this reporter. “Did you see him at the airport, son?” interrupted an elderly woman. “How did he look? Did he wear a broad grin as he usually does on TV?”

Meanwhile, a short distance away, hundreds of people, most of them in their youth, were waiting in line to pass through the security check for guests invited to attend the president’s public address at the 92-year-old Rangoon University’s convocation hall.

“I feel proud to be invited to hear the public remarks of the president of the United States,” said Su Su Nwe, a human rights activist, while waiting to go through security clearance to enter the hall. “But I want to remind him that the Burmese from all walks of life still can’t enjoy the reform that Burma is undergoing.”

In the good old days, Rangoon University was one of the most famous institutions for higher learning in Southeast Asia. But since the 1962 military coup, the university has lost its former glory. After the campus became a focal point of a series of student movements against military rule, the university was shut down and students were sent to poorly equipped universities on the outskirts of the town to prevent further unrest.

“By [speaking here], he is honoring the students who fought the dictatorship,” said Hla Shwe, the last editor of O Way, a magazine published by the university’s student union that was shut down by the military regime in 1962.

On Monday afternoon, a few hours before Obama ended his six-hour visit to the country, nearly a thousand people gathered at the main entrance of Rangoon University to greet him as he made his way to deliver his 30-minute-long speech, giving US Secret Service personnel and the Burmese police a hard time as they tried to keep the crowd behind the tight security lines. Among them were some elderly women and a monk who shared a placard that read simply, “Save Burma.”

“What I hope from him is his support for our education reform,” said Myo Myo, a second-year English major. Her friend holding a small US flag nodded in agreement. “History has already shown that we Burmese are smart. But now we are looked down on thanks to the bad education system we have.”

When the president’s motorcade appeared at around 2:17 pm, the crowd roared. As the president’s black limousine came into view, cell-phone cameras flashed under the cloudy November sky. A young man excitedly waved a poster that said “We ♥ Obama.”

“It’s a remarkable moment that I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime,” said Tun Shwe, 65, when the motorcade disappeared into the campus. “Even though I didn’t see him in person, I’m sure he saw us from behind his tinted window. I’m sure he could feel how much we appreciate him.”