News / Asia

Obama's Historic Burma Speech Mostly Well Received

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Rangoon University’s Convocation Hall in Rangoon, Burma, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Rangoon University’s Convocation Hall in Rangoon, Burma, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.
Daniel Schearf
RANGOON – President Barack Obama's speech at Burma's Rangoon University has been mostly welcomed as inspirational and supportive of political reforms, though some criticized his comments on the country's western Rakhine state as inaccurate.
In a speech praised by many of Burma's influential figures for supporting the country's fledgling but dramatic democratic reforms, President Obama congratulated Burma for moving to civilian rule, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and loosening its grip on the media.
Obama, who called the United States a partner in Burma's journey to reform, noted that, prisoners of conscience remain jailed within its borders, poverty remains a challenge and ethnic-rebel insurgencies remain unresolved.
"It is very encourag[ing] for our people," said Nge Nge Aye Maung, chairwoman of Myanmar Disabled Women's Affairs Association, describing the experience of hearing the speech as brilliant and significant. "I think maybe this old Burma to transfer to a new Burma."
The president also urged dignity for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Burma's western Rakhine state. Many in Burma consider the Rohingya – a group stripped of citizenship by a 1982 law and often referenced by official media in derogatory terms – illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Clashes this year between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists left at least 170 people dead and more than 100,000 homeless, most of them Muslims.

Story continues below
  • US President Barack Obama, right, waves as he embraces Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012.
  • US President Barack Obama watches as Aung San Suu Kyi center greets Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, Nov 19, 2012.
  • US President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Burma's President Thein Sein in Rangoon, Burma, Nov 19, 2012.
  • US President Barack Obama is presented with flowers as he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, arrive at Rangoon International Airport in Burma, Nov 19, 2012.
  • Crowd cheers as US President Barack Obama arrives at opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's home in Rangoon, Burma, Nov 19, 2012.
  • A man holds a sign reading: "Help to bring peace" as people line the street to see U.S. President Barack Obama in Burma, Nov. 19, 2012.
  • US President Barack Obama speaks to reporters as he tours Shwedagon Pagoda with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, Nov 19, 2012.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Rangoon, Burma, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.
Obama said embracing everyone within Burma's borders is not a weakness, but a strength.
"Because he said that to use the diversity to develop a country – it is really encouraging," said Thin Zar Khin Myo Win, a Muslim activist for interfaith peace who said he was moved by President Obama's comments on the value of freedom of speech and worship, and the need to embrace diversity.
"This is very, very good points for our people," he said.
Rakhine Nationalities Development Party spokesperson Oo Hla Saw described Obama's comments on Rakhine state as inaccurate.
"His comments are very far away from the reality of what is happening in Rakhine – historically, economically, politically," he said. "So we are very disappointed for his comments."
Burma political analyst Thant Myint-U, an American-born author, scholar and former United Nations diplomat, said despite the sensitivity of the Rohingya issue, it was expected that Obama would address it.
“I think it is good that he placed it within the larger context of this country needing to see diversity as a strength, rather than as a weakness," he said. "And I think it was good in a way that he tried to link it back also to the struggles and problems in the history of American democracy as well.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who helped lead the 1988 student democracy uprising, seemed to descibe the speech as both encouraging and sobering.
"Only the citizens of the country should find the solution to the conflict," he said. "But it is important to get help and understanding on Burma's reforms from the president of the world's most powerful nation, as well as the international community."
The president will depart Rangoon this afternoon to attend a dinner at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Watch the full speech:

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Comment Sorting
by: Joe from: USA
November 20, 2012 2:16 AM
Well fortunately the United States elected a smart President and can multi task and is on top of every crisis. I'm still waiting for Bush to answer all the lies and thousands of deaths both American and Iraqis in the Iraq War. But never mind all that hate noise. I'm proud to see any American president visit a country that has been living under a brutal dictatorship but is on its way to being a democracy. I love seeing foreign people wavy our flags. We are a great country even with the haters that cant except a lose. get over it and come up with ideas and facts that can be debated. We need it.

by: Mahope Makhan
November 20, 2012 1:59 AM
We welcome President Obama but his comments are very far away from the reality of what is happening in Rakhine – historically, economically, politically. So we are very disappointed for Obama's comments. Our Myanmar people requested that US government and OIC REFRAIN from bias one side (favour for Rohingya) while working for the affairs of Rakhine State. OIC MISINFORM to the world with Rohingyas' fake photos and videos. Will you please give illegal Bengali Rohingyas as citizens of Islam countries or US?? Almost Rohingyas are illegal and criminal persons.

President Obama should abstain from BIASED side of illegal Bengali Rohingyas.

May God bless you.

by: Ron Chakma from: Bangladesh
November 20, 2012 12:26 AM
Obama's concern for human rights in Myanmar is appreciable. But he should have steered clear of the conflict in Rakhine sate. The conflict is not between majority and minority as many western media like us to believe, it's between indigenous Rakhines and Bengali immigrants. It's an internal affair and Myanmar people are defending their territory from infiltrators.

No nation has the right to impose a 'minority' on other. It's only Myanmar people who have the right to decide who are their fellow citizens. If Obama is concerned about peace and harmony in the region he should warn Bangladesh for ethnic cleansing the Buddhists and Hindus in Chittagong Hill Tracts and encouraging its people to infiltrate the neigboring countries.

by: grassroot from: USA
November 19, 2012 12:47 PM
Instead of being on top of the crisis in the Middle East,
He's globe trotting and back into looking presidential on
the other side of the world. Completely in character.

by: MahaYangon from: US
November 19, 2012 12:12 PM
VOA, it is Myanmar, not Burma. You still live in the 90s. Why do we call Myanmar, Myanmar.

by: TallanRuddell from: Denver
November 19, 2012 12:03 PM
Well, that is wonderful' If Obama is now through playing hug-hug and kissy- kissy on all of the S.E. Asian female rulers, he needs to come back to the US and explain why he chose to LIE to the nation about the death of our Americans in Benghazi,
BE careful Asia. Obama is a prolific LIAR.
You can't trust much of anything he says to you.

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