US President Barack Obama’s speed march though Thailand, Burma and Cambodia last week was partly to reassure allies and potential adversaries that the US intends to remain a Pacific power, partly to continue his campaign claim that economic recovery was on the way, and partly to preach the “Civics of Democracy 101.”
Obama flew halfway around the world to spend 48 hours meeting with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, visiting Burmese President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, conferring with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and attending a summit of East Asian leaders.
On the sidelines, the US president talked briefly with two lame ducks, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who will be succeeded shortly by Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is widely expected to be voted out of office in the middle of this month.
In between, Obama delivered diplomatic niceties at lunches and dinners, gave pep talks to US embassy staffers and got in a bit of sightseeing, although not to the fabled Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Given the demanding pace, he could be forgiven a yawn caught on camera just before he climbed into Air Force One to fly home.
Amid the flash, the centerpiece of Obama’s journey was his address at the University of Yangon. In the audience in the small but packed auditorium was Aung San Suu Kyi, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for advocating democracy and opposing the military dictators who controlled Burma.
Obama hit a critical note immediately, saying: “I came here because of my respect for this university. It was here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took hold.”
He spoke to the legacy of anti-colonialism that courses through most of Asia today, including Burma, once ruled by Britain. Before World War II, Western powers ruled every country in Asia except Japan, Thailand and Nepal. That colonialism ended in 1999 when Portugal handed Macau back to China.
“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,” Obama said.
Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010.
The US president applauded Burma’s recent political reforms: “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.”
“But this remarkable journey has just begun and has much further to go,” he added. “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.”
“Those in power must accept constraints,” Obama said as he launched into his civics lesson. “As president, I cannot just impose my will on Congress … even though sometimes I wish I could. The legislative branch has its own powers and its own prerogatives, and so they check my power and balance my power.”
“You need to reach for a future where no child is made to be a soldier and no woman is exploited, and where the laws protect them even if they’re vulnerable, even if they’re weak,” he said.
He urged Burmese to seek “a future where national security is strengthened by a military that serves under civilians and a constitution that guarantees that only those who are elected by the people may govern.”
Obama lauded US diversity and noted that Burma, with its ethnic minorities, was much the same. Yet, he said: “I stand before you today as president of the most powerful nation on Earth, but recognizing that once the color of my skin would have denied me the right to vote.”
“As extraordinary and difficult and challenging and sometimes frustrating as this journey may seem, in the end, you, the citizens of this country, are the ones who must define what freedom means,” Obama said.
“I stand here,” he concluded, “with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed, and the will of the people can lift up this nation and set a great example for the world. And you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.