YANGON – A gathering of youth leaders from all ten ASEAN countries applauded as U.S. President Barack Obama opened his address with the Burmese greeting, “Myanmar, mingalaba!”
The 400 youths were gathered at Yangon University for a town-hall-style question-and-answer session with the president, who arrived in Myanmar on Wednesday to attend the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw, the country’s capital.
On November 14, Obama arrived in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, to visit the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the American embassy before attending the town-hall event hosted by the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).
The initiative was launched by Obama in 2013 to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia. It has attracted more than ten thousand members to date, according to the president.
Obama’s appearance at the university took place amid widespread student opposition to Myanmar’s recently passed Education Reform Bill. At the same time as the town-hall, students and teachers affiliated with the Nationwide Network for Education Reforms (NNER) staged a protest at the Sule Pagoda in the center of downtown Yangon, demanding the repeal of the bill. Obama had the chance to discuss education reform with the gathered youth leaders, in addition to other issues currently facing Myanmar.
Democratization and Diversity
In his opening remarks, the president cited the various reasons for his administration’s consistent focus on Southeast Asian affairs, including the years he spent as a child in Indonesia and the fact that one tenth of the world population lives in Southeast Asia, two thirds of whom are under 35 years old.
“This region will shape the twenty-first century,” he said.
During his opening statement, Obama reiterated many of the sentiments that he and Aung San Suu Kyi have expressed in the lead-up to his arrival.
“The journey of progress is not completed overnight. There are setbacks and false starts, and sometimes even reversals. It’s happened here in the past two or three years,” he said referring to Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a nominally civilian quasi-democracy.
These remarks echoed Suu Kyi’s statements at a National League for Democracy (NLD) press conference last week, where she cautioned the U.S. against investing too much optimism in Myanmar’s democratization.
“I would like to challenge those who talk so much about the reform process – what significant reform steps have been taken within the last two years?” she said at the press event.
Addressing the young leaders, Obama acceded to Suu Kyi’s assessment of the political situation in Myanmar, saying, “We’ve seen some progress, and we should acknowledge that progress. However, despite the fact that political prisoners have been released and people are more engaged in political dialogue, and with the parliament and civil society emerging, despite all that, some reforms have not come quickly enough.”
“There are still attacks against journalists and against ethnic minorities,” the president continued. “American is still deeply concerned with the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State.”
Obama encouraged the assembled young people to build trust across ethnic and religious lines and to secure the gains of freedom and democracy “through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith.”
However, he stopped short of uttering the term “Rohingya” – the name of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State, who have been dubbed by human rights groups as among the most persecuted people on the planet.
Obama did use the word in a response to a question posed to him at his press conference with Aung San Suu Kyi earlier in the day.
The first few questions posed by YSEALI members all dealt with issues relating to Myanmar’s complex, often violence-inducing diversity. One Burmese attendee asked the president for advice on how young people can educate others on cultural and religious tolerance.
The president replied that it is the responsibility of young people, who are not as deeply set in their ways as older generations are, to confront their peers directly about intolerance.
“If you hear your friend say, ‘I hate Muslims,’ you’ve got to tell him, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s right.’ You’ve got to speak out.”
“If you were the president of Myanmar, which sector would you focus on first, and how would you develop country?” asked one Burmese attendee.
Obama replied, “The most important challenge right now is completing the transition to democracy.” He said this transition must include the commitment to holding national elections in 2015 and constitutional amendments to establish a fully civilian government.
He also emphasized the connection between the maturation of Myanmar’s democracy to the availability of quality education, from early childhood through the university level. This struck a chord with the audience, several of whom were members of the NNER, which staged a protest against Myanmar’s Education Reform Bill at the same time as Obama’s talk.
The bill restricts teachers’ and students’ involvement in politics, as well as their right to organize into unions. It also centralizes university curriculum, stripping universities of their autonomy. Furthermore, the bill was drafted and submitted to parliament without the consultation of student or teacher organizations.
At one point during the town-hall, NNER-affiliated students held up signs reading, “Reform is Fake” and “Change.”
The president read these signs out loud and responded, “You can put them away. That’s why we’re here for the town-hall. You don’t have to protest, you can just ask your questions directly.”
Although it is unclear whether he knew that the students holding the placards were referring to the Education Reform Bill, the president spent ample time exalting the importance of education, stressing that schools should teach students how to think, not what to think.
“Education must not be a narrow process of indoctrination. Students must be involved in designing their own curriculum.” he said.
These remarks struck a chord with the audience, garnering repeated applause.
“We are so happy that he brought up education,” said Aye Thida Htun, a student attending the town-hall.
“The main issue this country faces is in education,” said Suhail Ahmed, a Burmese Muslim and a member of YSEALI who said that he has occasionally been the target of discrimination. “Education is the only thing that can teach people to treat others as they would like to be treated.”
Jacob Goldberg is a Myanmar-based journalist.