Students hold flags as they wait for President Barack Obama. (Soe Zeya Tun / Courtesy Reuters)
Not too long ago it would have been unthinkable: the sight of a U.S. president standing next to Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman many believe should be -- and might yet become -- the president of her long-suffering country, Myanmar (also known as Burma). When Barack Obama was first elected to the White House in 2008, the world-famous champion of democracy was under house arrest, confined to her family's crumbling lakeside villa in the country's former capital, Rangoon. Today, as an elected member of parliament, she welcomed Obama to her porch on his first overseas trip since his re-election. Speaking to reporters, the president lauded her "unbreakable courage and determination" and vowed U.S. support for the reforms that, in little over 18 months, have transformed Myanmar.
During his six-hour stop, Obama also held talks with President Thein Sein, the former general who is credited with the recent opening, and spoke to students at the University of Yangon, close to where the British accepted the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Obama's four-day tour of Southeast Asia epitomizes his administration's much-vaunted "pivot" toward the region, and includes visits to Thailand and Cambodia, where he will attend the East Asia Summit tomorrow; the Myanmar stop, however, provides the most dramatic example of this rebalancing. The visit marks the first time that a sitting U.S. president has visited the country and epitomizes the country's breakneck transition from international pariah state -- once muttered in the same breath as North Korea and Iran -- to something of a democracy in waiting.
Since Thein Sein took office at the head of a nominally civilian government in March 2011, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed restrictions on the press, and welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi back into the political mainstream. In lower Myanmar, especially Rangoon, residents have reveled in the more open atmosphere. Images of Aung San Suu Kyi, once