19 Nov 2012

Obama comes up against 'world leader weariness' in Burma

World leaders have been beating a path to Burma for months now to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. So why is Barack Obama so late to the party?

If the president of the United States carries the banner of hope and freedom to the rest of the world, I’m not sure the Burmese were really feeling it today.

It was a short visit – just six hours in Burma largest city, Rangoon – but Barack Obama’s arrival has been billed as historic nonetheless. It’s the first ever visit by a sitting American president to a country that was until recently, part of the untouchable military dictators club and thereby constitutes a reward for recent political reforms here – a sort of gold star for the “most improved student”.

Locals here in Rangoon – or Yangon as it is officially called – certainly seem glad he came but I haven’t caught anyone falling over themselves to get a glimpse of the presidential cavalcade.  At the airport this morning, several hundred school kids waved their plastic flags on the exit ramp but they didn’t look particularly excited about it.

I am not trying to sketch a metaphor about the relative decline of US power in the region – although the $170 million the Americans are offering in aid has been dwarfed by sums conjured up by the Japanese and the Chinese. Instead, I think the lack of interest may have something to do with a certain world-leader weariness here in Burma.

President Obama has come late to the party. For months now, the international community’s senior statesmen have been coming for obligatory meetings with Burmese President Thein Sein –  before proceeding to that much-desired photo-op  with opposition leader Aung San Sui Kyi. It’s the sort of risk-free excursion that looks good everywhere and plenty of politicians are on to it – British Prime Minister David Cameron was here 8 months ago – but I wonder if the people of this city have tired of it all.

Perhaps that’s why US Embassy staff felt the need to need to hand out some promo literature before his speech this afternoon at the University of Rangoon. The docket included a biography on the president which started with this:

“His story is the American story – values from the heartland, a middle-class upbringing in a strong family…”

What his Burmese audience made of ‘values from the heartland’ I am not sure but it sounds nice enough. Even nicer however was the fresh lick of paint given to the interior of the auditorium at the University. You may be surprised to learn that this is a pretty major development on campus.

For years the university was the focus of student protests against the military dictatorship. In return, the generals shipped the undergraduates off to out-of-town satellite buildings while the main campus was left to rot.

There is still plenty of mould growing on the outside of the hall – but the inside looked and smelled like newly-applied Dulux – a sort of a new beginning for the university – and an opportunity for the president to make the statesman’s speech.

President Obama spoke for 40 minutes or so and challenged his Burmese hosts to follow through on the democratic reforms. It sounded like a civics lesson at times but he spoke passionately, asking his hosts to look beyond basic democratic concepts like majority rule and construct a state that values and protects each and every citizen – no matter their race, religion or sex.

Once again however, I wonder if the message got a little lost. It was a good speech, an inspiring speech actually – but the audience only clapped twice. Later someone said they couldn’t understand what he was saying and in truth, the acoustics in the hall were terrible.

Communication is a messy business – even when the most powerful man on the planet is involved – so it might take some time for President Obama’s thoughts and ideas – and his banner of freedom, to filter through.

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