US President Barack Obama stands next to Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they leave after making a speech at her residence in Yangon on November 19, 2012.
(AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

by Stephen Collinson


Aung San Suu Kyi must have spent hours during her long years of captivity staring out across the vast expanse of Inya Lake from the balcony of her home.

But she never could have imagined during that stifling confinement that one day she would stand there with the American president marking a new dawn of political reform after years of brutal junta rule.

But, in one of many remarkable sights in a six hour visit to Myanmar, President Barack Obama parked his hulking limousine — known as “The Beast” — in her driveway and went inside to talk.

Afterwards, the pair emerged on that same porch, at the back of the house, once rickety, now sporting a new red roof and a smart paint job, in front of a US media pack and elderly members of her National League for Democracy.

Suu Kyi, speaking in her mellifluous English accent, struck a rare note of caution during a visit bathed in headlines using the word “historic” warning that the world must keep focused on the Myanmar military to make sure recent political reforms are not a “mirage.”

Local residents wave and show a banner as US President Barack Obama's motorcade drive past in Yangon on November 19, 2012.
(AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

Then, Obama spoke, and it was a unintentionally comic scene. The president, victim of a strange verbal tick, kept mispronouncing his fellow Nobel laureate’s name — as Aung Yan Suu Kyi — which did not appear to please the woman known as “The Lady.”

After his remarks, the president then swooped to give his host a kiss — and apparently not expecting this sudden lunge of affection — the courtly, proper Suu Kyi  flinched and grimaced — giving news photographers a richly comic shot.

During the late 1990s, I reported often from Myanmar, which at the time was still under harsh military rule. Occasionally, the junta would grant foreign journalists a visa to enter the country for a few days — usually coinciding with some staged political event — like the ceremonial burning of seized narcotics.

Suu Kyi at that time was confined to her compound by the junta, though a couple of times, the military took no action when she held a press conference her small living room. Most of the time, her home was off limits, watched over by goons from the state security services, who took pictures of anyone trying to go inside.

Myanmar in those days was one vast Orwellian jail cell. At first, you didn’t see many signs of junta control. There were no tanks on the streets. But after a few days, the repressive atmosphere of the place would get inside your mind and depress your spirit, and it was a relief to go back to the chaotic freedom of Bangkok.

A Myanmar police officer sits next to a graffiti portrait (L) of US president Barack Obama with the words ''Welcome Obama'' in Yangon, on November 17, 2012.
(AFP Photo/Nicolas Asfouri)

The dictatorship was so complete in Myanmar that, apart from in rare uprisings, the troops could stay in their barracks. Anyone showing signs of dissident activity was quickly slapped in the horrific Insein jail. The sinister reality was that the government was so omnipresent that it held the minds of its people captive, in their isolated, impoverished, and joyless homeland.

That what was so striking about Obama’s visit. As soon as the president’s motorcade swept out of the airport, he was met by tens of thousands of joyful, smiling faces. Yangon-ites dressed in multicolored longyi sarongs and ubiquitous black flip flops waved, held up banners or simply stood and stared as Obama’s limo, and a long line of American SUVs containing heavily armed SWAT teams, and minibuses with White House staff and journalists passed.

Military police made no attempt to halt this explosion of joy,  even when crowds surged around the motorcade. Inside the buses, it felt like you were a rider in the Tour de France fighting through crowds at the top of a mountain stage.

As the designated pool reporter for the White House press corps, it was my job to report Obama’s arrival to the rest of the journalists who had flown to Yangon earlier aboard a chartered US airliner.

A member of a US security team (R) checks members of a local guard of honour prior the arrival of US President Barack Obama at Yangon international airport on November 19, 2012.
(AFP Photo/Than Win)

“Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar on Monday when Air Force One touched down in Yangon at 9.35 am local time.” 

Because foreign cellphones and BlackBerry devices don’t work in Myanmar, which still has a rudimentary government controlled communications network, I had to send the quick alert by email from a staff office aboard the presidential jet.

Though the visit was truly historic, and spurred hopes that the reform effort pioneered by President Thein Sein could endure and lead to genuine democracy, the legacy of 50 years of junta rule was easy to spot.

The roads Obama took were spruced up and the curbs were painted, but a glance at the rundown buildings and decaying colonial era architecture hinted at the huge economic transformation that Myanmar is crying out for.

At the parliament building in Yangon – no longer used as the military constructed a huge, Stalinist-style capital in the jungle at Nyapidaw – a bat flitted about above the heads of reporters waiting to go into Obama’s photo spray with Thein Sein.

November 19, 2012 photo showing US President Barack Obama extending his hand to Myanmar's President Thein Sein during their meeting at the regional parliament building in Yangon.
(AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

The hall at Yangon University where Obama gave a speech was black with mold on the outside. Students have been barred from the campus for years, to stop them agitating and sparking revolts against military rule as they have done several times over the last 50 years.

Obama also did not see the slums, the crowded downtown core of Yangon, and can only have got a superficial glimpse of life there from his speeding car.

But he put his finger on the importance of this moment as he looked upon an audience of students, once again filling the hall that has stood empty for so long, listening, rapt, to his lecture.

“Today, you are showing the world that fear does not have to be the natural state of life in this country.”