I Got to See the President in Yangon, and Yes, It Was Awesome

So, as this photo I took may indicate, I did get in to see the President. Here’s my GlobalPost story on the visit.

(Play “Spot the Secret Service Agent/Milford Man in the above image!)

People have asked me how I got in to see the President’s Yangon speech without prior permission. The answer to this question is easy: Dumb Luck.

I in fact wandered over to the official press entrance with a couple of Financial Times reporters, and stood around looking a bit sad with two German students studying abroad in Switzerland. The Burmese volunteer took our names down and very politely continued to tell us to “keep waiting.”

Eventually, the very intense US press attache to Myanmar emerged and said something about how “there’s no space for extras.”

Then he let us in anyway!

I was issued my first-ever White House Press Pool badge, which I may or may not get framed.

Most of the photojournalists had already set up on the other side of the room from the stage at Yangon University’s Convocation Hall, so I went up to the balcony where they were putting the print journalists.

I set up and began tapping out a story on my Galaxy SIII (a useful little device)—as I hadn’t expected at all to get in, I was a bit behind on my background copy. Then we waited…and well, waited.

Eventually, Aung Sang Suu Kyi came in. I asked a Burmese journalists what all the commotion on the floor was about and she (also very politely) pointed out Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the scrum, looking, as one might expect, surprisingly elegant as she was mobbed by excited Burmese supporters and diplomatic types.

Hillary followed some minutes after, dressed in white, and she and Aung Sang Suu Kyi immediately began talking and laughing like old buddies. As a female political junkie, this was quite an exciting thing to see—two monumentally important women, obviously fond of each other. (Yes, I’d love to vote for Hillary in 2016).

I eventually noticed a number of photographers were setting up on a riser tantalizingly close to the podium, so I decided to see if I could find a way to get down there. I actually did, which meant I had pretty good access for some close-up shots of the POTUS. This was awesome.

Obama strode in, beaming everywhere (as he wouldn’t in Cambodia). No Presidential march played, which I willy freely admit depressed me a little, as that would have been awfully psychologically satisfying.

He greeted the crowd in Burmese, which made everyone extremely happy. He also gave a wai—a traditional Southeast Asian greeting which Burmese people don’t happen to do—but as I keep making the same mistake, I suppose he can be forgiven.

I liked his speech. I think most of us critical, fractious Southeast Asia watchers did, if I’m interpreting my Twitter and blog tea-leaves correctly. It was more of a lecture than anything else, perhaps fitting for a country that is in need of some advice on the usual operations of democracy. (Certainly the students liked it: a little lecture by the Leader of the Free World on the precepts of democracy, not exactly an every-day occurrence).

He speaks well, and powerfully: seeing Obama speak in person gives one an idea of the nervousness he engendered in the Romney camp when he was really on. I certainly felt that much better about voting for the guy a few weeks back: I’m finding it well-nigh impossible to imagine Romney executing a Southeast Asian visit with even a modicum of understanding or grace.

Obama was definitely on for the Burmese, as he explained Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to the crowd, and as he emphasized that Burma was in need of national reconciliation—a statement that drew applause, which appeared to start with the ethnic minorities seated in the room, dressed in their native attire.

Obama extended the hand-fist metaphor that he began with Iran: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Much to some detractors relief, I belive, he didn’t act as if the battle was finished in Burma for democracy—which it isn’t. He emphasized that the Burmese government is merely beginning a long journey towards a less heinous government.

Further, he mentioned the Rohingya by name—with Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the room, who has been noticeably reticent on the matter.

“But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves — hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

It was all quite good (I feel), and I noticed that the Burmese people I spoke with about the speech outside the venue kept coming back to national reconciliation and the import of it. Perhaps the audience for this event was unusually liberal—in fact,almost certainly so–but the fact that none seemed interested in defending the old divides is likely heartening. We’ll see what happens with Kachin state and Chin state and with the Rohingya and with Freedom of Speech.

Tellingly (as many have pointed out) Obama referred to Burma as Myanmar for the first time, using a spelling that the US government does not officially endorse, and which the Burmese/Myanmar government prefers.

Whatever happens, I feel proud to say I was in the room for that speech and for that moment. And I do feel that Obama’s speech marked a real sea change in Burma—when things that need to change changed.

Then Obama came to Cambodia and snubbed the hell out of Hun Sen.

More on that later, but here’s my GlobalPost story on the whole affair.