RANGOON—US President Barack Obama’s speech at Rangoon University on Monday earned mixed reactions, with some of his audience praising his “practical” understanding of Burma’s needs, while others found his words less than inspiring.
Thant Myint-U, a US-born Burmese historian, said he thought the 30-minute speech did a good job of emboldening the Burmese to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead. Noting the long neglect of Burma’s education system, he added that Obama’s choice of venue was particularly apt.
“I agree with [Obama’s] remarks on ethnic diversity,” he said. “If we understand the value of ethnic diversity inherently, it will be good for our peace process.”
Ma Thida, a writer and editor, also appreciated the US president’s message on education and other challenges facing the country, but was less impressed with his delivery.
“He emphasized the importance of education and the role of the citizen. I liked that, because that’s what we really need here,” she said.
She noted, however, that the speech didn’t get much applause. “Maybe it’s because people were so tired after waiting for him for nearly three hours,” she said, adding that compared to other speeches she’s seen Obama give, this one was “just average” and “not very inspired.”
Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a Burmese filmmaker who is now working on a documentary on Aung San Suu Kyi, was not so disappointed, however. The best part of the speech, he said, was when Obama said that the United States stands with the people of Burma, who have suffered under tyranny for many years.
“That really moved me,” he said. “For the president of one of the world’s most powerful and democratic countries to encourage the Burmese like that is quite amazing.”
He also praised the US president for directing some of his words directly at the Burmese government, instead of just offering encouragement to the country’s people.
Obama’s remarks on the contentious subject of ethnic relations in Burma were particularly helpful, the filmmaker said.
“What he said about ethnic affairs is quite practical. He compared Burma’s ethnic diversity with that of the US. He said that if he had been discriminated against because of his ethnic background and the color of his skin, there would be no way for him to be president.”
But Obama’s speech angered some who believe that further unrest could be sparked in western Burma because of his choice of words.
“He used the word ‘Rohingya’ which we object to,” said Dr. Aye Maung from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, adding that the 44th US president did not understand the origin and connotations of the term.
Many people in Burma use the word “Bengali” to describe the Rohingya Muslim minority of Arakan State to add weight to claims that they are in fact illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State have led to at least 180 deaths, thousands of homes being destroyed and tens of thousands of people being made homeless since June, according to official figures.
“In his speech, he used ‘Myanmar’ for ‘Burma’ and ‘Yangon’ instead of ‘Rangoon.’ But he used ‘Rohingya’. It is a word that even our President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi avoid in their speeches,” added the MP.
Aye Maung worries that Obama’s speech would add weight to Rohingya claims that they are in fact an ethnic group of Burma, claims denied by the 1982 citizenship law enacted by former dictator Ne Win.
Ko Ko Gyi, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Student Group, said Obama’s speech was comprehensive and showed he was taking Burmese issues seriously.
“We understand human rights but being a citizen is another issue,” Ko Ko Gyi told The Irrawaddy upon being asked about the Rohingya crisis. “That’s why every country has different procedures on this matter. We have to achieve a balance to avoid having clashes between human rights and citizenship issues.”
Many people were pleased that Obama gave a speech at historic Rangoon University, which has been a hotbed of dissenter activities in Burma for decades.
“The arrangement was made for mutual convenience,” Zaw Htay, the director of Burma’s President’s Office, was quoted by The Associated Press. “Due to time constraints on the part of President Obama and also because Obama wanted to deliver a speech at Yangon University, it was agreed by both sides to have a meeting in Yangon.”