Inside Story

Back to work in Myanmar

Thomas Kean gauges local reaction to Barack Obama’s historic visit

Thomas Kean 21 November 2012 1314 words

Barack Obama with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi following their statements to the media at her home in Yangon on 19 November. Pete Souza/White House

THE waiter clears the remains of chicken and fish curries from our table as the intense sun of central Myanmar beats down on the tarpaulin roof of a rice shop run by a smiling middle-aged woman named Ma Cho. This modest restaurant is inside the massive compound of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, beside one of three hostels where many of the party’s almost 350 representatives stay for the eight months or so each year that parliament is in session here in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“Over the next three years, I think we can really act as a check and balance on the government,” says U Khat Htein Nan, a parliamentary representative for the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, which – like other parties allied with the USDP – has also been given lodgings here. The Kachin politician pauses and turns his head slightly; in the corner of the restaurant, a TV broadcasts the beaming faces of Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, as they emerge from discussions at her lakeside home in Yangon. Almost on cue, the president, drawing on his own experience as a legislator, praises Aung San Suu Kyi for strengthening the parliament.

“Real democracy involves having different branches of government check and balance each other, and I applaud your efforts in that regard, particularly as the head of the committee of the rule of law,” he says, before leaning over to kiss Aung San Suu Kyi on the cheek – an action that prompts consternation elsewhere in the restaurant.

On the other side of Naypyidaw – a twenty-minute drive through the hotel zone, along wide concrete roads with immaculately tended median strips, past a golf course and double-storey homes still under construction – is a “guesthouse” run by the Naypyidaw City Development Committee, where many of the 150 or so opposition legislators, including about forty National League for Democracy members, stay when they’re in the capital. The MPs have done their best to make the spartan, concrete rooms feel like home; one, an outspoken lawyer, has his own satellite connection and television, and members of his small party are crowded into his room to watch the live coverage of Obama’s visit.

Nearby are lodged representatives of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. An elderly MP from Sittwe and his wife show me the paintings of the ancient city of Mrauk Oo they have made to adorn the walls of their room. Next door, the party’s representative for Ponnagyun township, Htun Aung Kyaw, is delighted about the US president’s visit, his face glowing as he tells me of his belief that it will encourage the government to deepen and strengthen the budding reforms.

But for Htun Aung Kyaw and many other Rakhine, there is another element to Obama’s six-hour stay. “I’m very glad he’s here and hope he can see personally the truth, the real situation, about the conflict in Rakhine State,” he says, referring to longstanding tension between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, including members of the Rohingya group. In June and October, this tension spilled over into bloody, week-long riots that claimed more than 200 lives and left more than 100,000 people, mostly Muslims, homeless.

For some, the communal violence in Rakhine State, along with a conflict with the Kachin Independence Army in northern Myanmar, now in its eighteenth month, mean that Obama’s visit, the first by a sitting US president, has come too soon – that it has legitimised a government, still dominated by former generals, which even includes some serving military. (The controversial 2008 constitution demands several ministerial posts, including defence, home affairs and border affairs, are given to officers from the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, while 25 per cent of seats in national and regional legislatures are reserved for military personnel.)

In his speech at Yangon University, President Obama addressed these ethnic conflicts, calling on the people of Myanmar to see “diversity as a strength and not a weakness.” “Your country will be stronger because of many different cultures,” he said, “but you have to seize that opportunity. You have to recognise that strength.”

But it was Obama’s insistence that “no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation” that drew some of the largest applause from the 1500-strong crowd packed into the university’s historic Convocation Hall. “You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to transform ceasefires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State,” the president said.

The significance of the location was not lost on the Burmese: so often the site of unrest and protest, the generals shuttered Yangon University following an uprising in 1988 that ended twenty-six years of socialist rule. Just ten days before Obama’s arrival, parliamentarians in the capital – including those from the military – had backed a proposal by Aung San Suu Kyi to reopen the university, despite the education ministry’s objections. For the Myanmar government, it was also a significant concession for Obama’s meeting with President U Thein Sein to take place outside Naypyidaw, the capital since November 2005.

When I asked MPs, government officials and journalists in Naypyidaw which aspect of the president’s speech most resonated, each person had a different answer: for one, it was the fact that he emphasised how, although he is president of the most powerful country in the world, he is not above the law; for another, it was his citing of Franklin Roosevelt’s four “fundamental freedoms,” freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear; for others it was his insistence that one political prisoner is one too many, or his focus on education and the seemingly imminent reopening of Yangon University. And for some, no single point stood out. “I only have one word to say about his whole visit: ‘wow,’” was how Win Htein, the National League for Democracy representative from Meiktila, described it to me.

At 10 am the next morning, MPs filed into the towering national parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, to discuss the amended budget for 2012–13. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had flown to the capital earlier that morning, seemed to be happy to take a back seat as Thein Nyunt, a former member of her party who left to contest the controversial 2010 election, argued that the state press should be privatised, citing an auditor general’s office report that found significant corruption in the Ministry of Information’s newspapers. Rather than force a showdown with the government, the USDP’s U Win Than proposed that 30 per cent of the Ministry of Industry’s proposed budget be pushed back a year, to which the minister replied that it had been his plan all along. And Banyar Aung Moe, a representative from Mon State, detailed a litany of complaints about corruption and incompetence in the construction and energy ministries.

“They never finish these projects on time, there’s no transparency – for example, I can’t find the budget for the last five-year plan anywhere,” Banyar Aung Moe thundered, as the timer showing his allotted twenty minutes ticked down on the giant television screen in the corner of the auditorium. “We need to be a proper check and balance; we need to speak out about these issues.”

The applause in the Convocation Hall had died down, Yangon’s main thoroughfare, Pyay Road, had reopened, and Air Force One had jetted out of Yangon International Airport. In the capital, the real work had resumed. •