President Barack Obama’s first stop in Yangon, Myanmar Friday: The magnificent but decaying British colonial era building where independence leader General Aung San was gunned down.
Obama, wearing sunglasses, toured the Secretariat Building, alongside Thant Myint-U, a prominent Burmese historian who is the grandson of a former secretary general of the United Nations.
He stopped by a small white memorial in the courtyard dedicated to the general and six cabinet ministers who were assassinated in July 1947. Aung San, affectionately known today as “bogyoke” or general, is credited with securing Myanmar’s independence from the British but was assassinated six months before independence.
Two years ago, Obama became the first U.S. president ever to set foot in the Southeast nation that had isolated for decades under military rule but had begun emerging as a democracy in part because of U.S. assistance.
But this visit, to Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is complicated by stalled progress with continuing ethnic fights and human rights violations. In particular, human rights groups say the civilian government, still heavily influenced by the military, is engaged in a systematic effort to repress and dislocate the Rohingya people, Muslims long persecuted by the nation’s Buddhist majority.
“A country that was completely closed to the international community, completely closed in terms of its politics, completed dominated by the military...has now opened up in a very dramatic way and is going to be undergoing a transition for a number of years,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. “And no country goes through the process quickly or easily.”
A nation of 50 million people, Myanmar is not a major trading partner with the United States, nor is it of high strategic value. But as a country closed off from the world and ruled by the military for decades, it holds a particular fascination for many in the West.
In 2012, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Yangon, chanting and holding signs, to catch a glimpse of Obama. On Friday, only a few people waved American flags as Obama’s motorcade passed en route to downtown.
After the visit to the Secretariat Building, Obama visited the general’s daughter, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The two met at her house -- the same place where she had been under house arrest for much of the previous two decades -- before taking questions from reporters camped out on her lawn. It was an unusual scene.
“It’s unique, but she’s a unique figure, and she’s certainly a figure who is going to be very important to the future of this country,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. “She has done extraordinary things to sacrifice on behalf of democracy and human rights here inside of Burma, being intermittently under arrest or house arrest for so many years, for exactly the type of opportunity that we see today, which is a democratic opening. So she is both a fundamentally important voice inside of Burma on behalf of reform, but she’s also I think an icon for democracy around the world.”
Many, including the U.S. leaders, wonder whether the military elite will accept an election victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Without a chance in the constitution, Suu Kyi is barred from competing for president.
Later, he will meet with representatives of civil society at the U.S. embassy and have a town hall with young people to develop a young Southeast Asian leaders program in line with the type of program he started with young African leaders.
Obama is spending the day in Yangon after two days in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, where he met with President Thein Sein in During and participated in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, discussing maritime territorial disputes and international campaigns against the Islamic State and the Ebola outbreak.
He will depart later today for Brisbane, Australia for the G-20 summit, a meeting of the nation’s 20 largest economies, where the U.S. will be able to brag a bit about its growing economy.