Yangon smiles as Obama conjures up new future

Stephen Collinson
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US President Barack Obama (R) kisses Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

US President Barack Obama (R) kisses Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after making a speech at her residence in Yangon. Miles of smiles lit up shabby Yangon Monday during a visit by Obama, a striking contrast to the wrenching, dark years under a xenophobic junta.

Miles of smiles lit up shabby Yangon Monday during a visit by President Barack Obama, a striking contrast to the wrenching, dark years under a xenophobic junta.

"Mr Obama we (heart) you, you are the legend hero of our world," read one huge banner, held up by one of the tens of thousands who lined miles of roadways as the US president paid a historic visit.

Obama gave Yangon residents who crowded six and seven deep on sidewalks a few hours of wonder, as his motorcade trundled through crumbling streets which were hastily scrubbed for his visit.

The enthusiasm and happiness was infectious as crowds formed narrow tunnels through which Obama's shiny black limousine slowly passed.

The bleak years of repression under the former State Peace and Development Council junta seemed far way when the US president came visiting on a sunny day to encourage the country's startling political opening.

Fume-spewing cars that normally clog Yangon's streets were kept at bay, as Obama rode empty highways, with red-and-white stripes freshly painted on the curbs.

It was a day of incongruous scenes.

Back in the military-ruled 1990s, Burmese would avoid the eyes of the few foreigners to visit the city and hurry past, anxious not to tip off police informers.

But on Monday the streets teemed with joyful faces: even some of the hard-faced security agents waved as the president's entourage passed by.

Schoolchildren draped in smart green longyis and pressed white shirts waved US and Myanmar flags. People captured the scene with cameras and even the odd iPad, in scenes that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

In another sight that made observers blink twice, Obama's armoured car sat parked outside the newly spruced-up house where democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi languished under years of house arrest.

Obama later told aides he was deeply moved to meet Suu Kyi around a small table in the home where she had been confined as her sons grew up without a mother and the husband she could not nurse died of cancer.

Huge crowds gathered outside Suu Kyi's compound, chanting "Good Luck and Good health Obama and Clinton," honouring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her last foreign tour with her boss.

A decade ago taxi drivers would hurry by, looking straight ahead, when asked to swing by Suu Kyi's place on University Avenue.

One longtime Myanmar journalist looked at the circus on Monday and confided: "If you thought about this happening two years ago, people would have thought you are dreaming."

"Now the dreams have come true."

Myanmar people may now be starting to dream, but still face what Suu Kyi called "difficult times" ahead. The political system remains stacked in favour of the military and ethnic divides strain the country at the seams.

Obama did not see the impoverished townships around Yangon where hardship is rife or experience the tough reality of life in the countryside.

But the strange sights kept coming, as he lauded President Thein Sein's reform process.

The hall of Yangon University, its outside walls blackened with mould, was emptied years ago after restive students kept fomenting revolt. On Monday it was suddenly full of inquiring young minds.

Burma's independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi's assassinated father, might have enjoyed Obama's liberal quotation of former president Franklin Roosevelt, who famously disdained the British Empire.

Obama cited his predecessor's vision of a free world living without fear to offer his audience a picture of self-government, a luxury they did not enjoy under British colonial masters or under iron-fisted generals.

Earlier, Obama had moved US political orthodoxy on a little.

While meeting Thein Sein, he even said the word "Myanmar", the preferred moniker of the military regime, to refer to a state that his own government still calls Burma.

In another head-shaking moment, senior aides said Thein Sein, leading a reform drive atop a nominally civilian government, kept quoting Obama's own campaign slogan back at him.

"I want to do what you have been talking about, I want to move forward," the Myanmar leader told the re-elected US president in a room in the old Rangoon parliament building, as a stray bat flitted around the hall outside.

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