In the dilapidated former capital of Yangon, Myanmar, a rainbow-coloured portrait of US President Barack Obama smiles benevolently across six lanes of haphazard traffic.
The first ever visit by an American president to the impoverished south-east Asian nation was met by tens of thousands of spectators yesterday, some waving flags and congratulatory banners, others just waiting until security task forces unblocked the pot-holed roads and allowed normal traffic to resume.
Arker Kyaw, a softly spoken 19-year-old university student also known by his tag name “Night”, is the artist behind Yangon’s hottest graffiti. Together with his older brother and confidant Soe Wai Htun, the pair used their savings and enlisted the help of friends and family to raise almost US$50 (close to one month’s salary) to buy paint and materials before waiting for the dead of night to descend upon the streets, armed only with a bag of spray cans and a hand-held video camera.
Why? To welcome President Obama, a foreign politician and iconic figure who they admire and respect. “We like Obama because of his leadership skills, his speeches and his heart,” Soe Wai Htun, 21, translated for his brother. “We just wanted to make him feel welcome as a guest in our country.”
They realised the gravity of the risks they were taking; under the former military regime getting caught using spray paint on public property could land you in prison. But the brothers were more worried about having their mural defaced before the President arrived. Their first attempt — a similar portrait of Obama on a wall near the hotel where he stayed during his six-hour visit to Myanmar — was destroyed the same day it was completed, and already an attempt has been made to deface the second mural.
For Myanmar’s burgeoning media industry, Obama’s brief visit was “historic”, according to U Myo Lwin, a veteran media player and senior editor at weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times. Journalists were released from strict pre-publication censorship requirements earlier this year and many have finessed clandestine methods of information-gathering under the watchful eye of the former military regime. Most reporters have never travelled outside the country, let alone received a visit to their own from the most powerful man in the world.
“Myanmar media have given quite a bit of coverage to his visit, so yes we can say it’s a big deal for them,” U Myo Lwin said, his comments reflected by the media scrum of reporters, photographers and cameramen who waited patiently for hours in the hot sun for a sight of the President’s Air Force One arrival on Monday morning.
Many made the lengthy pilgrimage — in 35 degree heat along blocked-off roads under the watchful eye of security forces — to the historic Yangon University to listen to Obama address over 1300 people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended, while thousands of locals lined the streets outside for a glimpse of the President.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, received her standard rock star welcome as, dressed in peach and dark green, she greeted dignitaries and posed for photos with a surging crowd armed with smiles, smart phones and cameras. Earlier, she received an affectionate hug from the President. Suu Kyi visibly enjoyed a lengthy discussion with Claire Mitchell, the wife of the new US ambassador Derek Mitchell, and a quiet chat with Clinton before Obama began his speech.
He received a standing ovation after addressing the audience in their own language (to say “thank you”). The applause almost matched that for Suu Kyi.
But not everyone got caught up in Obama-fever. “I don’t know what all this fuss is about,” said Daw Mya Lay, a 51-year-old grandmother who lost her job as a seamstress in a garment factory catering for US clothing lines six years ago after the US government imposed a blanket import ban on all made-in-Myanmar products. “Hundreds of thousands of women and girls lost their jobs overnight because of these American sanctions — so why are they happy now?”
“… there are not many among the blue collar workers who blame America for their hardships here. However, there are many who realise the consequences of the sanctions.”
The US government’s recent announcement that it would lift the ban could see the rejuvenation of Myanmar’s garment industry, which exported around 80% of its wares to the US before sanctions. But it’s too late for Daw Mya Lay, who now suffers from acute arthritis in her fingers, rendering her unable to sew.
Myo Lwin realises not everyone in post-sanction Myanmar, a country that was isolated for decades under a range of punitive financial, trade and target sanctions, is ready to trust and embrace America. “Many see America as very advanced, very competitive in many areas, a global superpower and a material world,” U Myo Lwin said.
“It had been a childhood dream among many people wanting to go there in 1970s and still there are many who like to see the US with their own eyes,” he said. “In my opinion, there are not many among the blue collar workers who blame America for their hardships here. However, there are many who realise the consequences of the sanctions.”
For many in post-sanction Myanmar’s business community, Obama’s visit holds dual symbolism — the re-engagement means better business opportunities and a shift away from dominant China. “The geopolitical position of Myanmar is very strategic and the US realises China’s growing power in the region and its influence upon Myanmar,” said La Min Win, managing director of United Win Investment Corporation.
Obama stressed Myanmar’s need to aim for economic prosperity, and noted the US had lifted sanctions, now allowing American firms to invest in the country. Soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi were among the first US firms to make their move. “But that kind of growth must leave corruption behind,” Obama cautioned.
Political reform is the key to improving Myanmar’s economy and the social welfare of its people, says La Min, who recently returned after six years studying and working in Sydney. Together with a group of colleagues he’s a driving force behind the establishment of an Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and hopes President Obama’s visit will set a precedent for others to re-engage with Myanmar and assist to rebuild its crippled economy.
Obama’s promise to lend impoverished Myanmar a “helping hand” — as long as it continues to reform — came with a caution that Myanmar must ramp up efforts to put an end to its bloody ethnic conflicts, and release more prisoners of conscience.
“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,” Obama said. “So today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.”
Myanmar seems to be attempting to get something right — at least on paper. While the US President and most of the world was focussing on Yangon, authorities released dozens of prisoners of conscience. But local media reports of fresh violence in the far northern Kachin state went mostly unnoticed.
*Victoria Bruce is the senior reporter for Myanmar-focused business magazine M-ZINE+