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November 19, 2012

Obama becomes first U.S. president to visit Myanmar

President Barack Obama made an historic visit to Myanmar Monday, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asia nation in the hopes his high profile presence encourages the government’s shift from military rule to fledgling democracy.

Thousands of people lined the streets from the airport to greet him, many schoolchildren wearing green longyi sarongs, white shirts and black traditional flip flop style shoes. They waved U.S. and Myanmar flags, and chanted "America." Some people held posters. One read "Mr Obama we (Heart) you" and another "Legend, hero of our world."  

Obama met behind closed doors with President Thein Sein Monday morning. He expects to visit famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her manicured estate where she spent 15 years under house arrest before being elected to Parliament.

He will deliver a televised speech at the University of Yangon, a recently reopened school that has been the center of political movements for decades, where he planned to urge Myanmar to give all citizens a voice.

See below for excerpts from his speech:

Above all, I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity. Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you – the people of this country. You gave us hope. And we bore witness to your courage.
 
We saw the activists dressed in white visit the families of political prisoners on Sundays, and monks dressed in saffron protesting peacefully in the streets. We learned of ordinary people who organized relief teams to respond to a cyclone, and heard the voices of students and the beats of hip hop artists projecting the sound of freedom. We came to know exiles and refugees who never lost touch with their families or their ancestral home. And we were inspired by the fierce dignity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as she proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart.
 
When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear:  “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.  Under President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda for reform. A civilian now leads the government, and a parliament is asserting itself. The once-outlawed National League for Democracy stood in an election, and Aung San Suu Kyi is a Member of Parliament. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been released, and forced labor has been banned. Preliminary cease-fires have been reached with ethnic armies, and new laws allow for a more open economy.
 
So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship. America now has an Ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the world. But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go. Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished – they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.

***

Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected. Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted. As you take these steps, you can draw on your progress. Instead of being ignored, citizens who protested the construction of the Myitsone dam were heard. Instead of being outlawed, political parties have been allowed to participate. As one voter said during the  parliamentary elections, “Our parents and grandparents waited for this, but never saw it.”
 
To protect the freedom of that voter, those in power must accept constraints. That is what our American system is designed to do. America may have the strongest military in the world – but it must submit to civilian control. As President and Commander-in-Chief, I cannot just impose my will on our Congress – even though sometimes I wish I could. I appoint some of our judges, but I cannot tell them how to rule – because every person in America, from a child living in poverty to the President – is equal under the law.
 
That is how you must reach for the future you deserve – a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many, and the law is stronger than any leader; where no child is made to be a soldier, and no woman is exploited; where national security is strengthenedt by a military that serves under civilians, and a Constitution guarantees that only those who are elected by the people may govern. On that journey, America will support you every step of the way: by using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by partnership with you as you connect your progress towards democracy with economic development.
 
***

 Every nation struggles to define citizenship – America has had great debates about these issues, and they continue to this day. But certain principles are universal – the right of people to live without the threat that their families may be harmed or their homes may be burned simply because of who they are or where they come from. Ultimately, only the people of this country can define your union, but I have confidence that – as you do – you can draw on diversity as a strength, not a weakness. 
 
I say this because my own country, and my own life, have taught me this. The United States of America is a nation of Christians and Jews; Muslims and Buddhists; Hindus and non-believers.  Our story is shaped by every language and enriched by every culture. We have tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede, and the lines between races and tribe fade away. What is left, then, is a simple truth: e pluribus unum; in America, out of many, we are one nation, we are one people. Time and again, that truth has made our union stronger.
 
We amended our Constitution to extend the democratic principles that we hold dear. And I stand before you today as President of the most powerful nation on Earth, with a heritage that would have once denied me the right to vote. So I believe deeply that this country can transcend its differences, and that every human being within these borders is a part of your nation’s story.

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