By Daniel Schearf
President Barack Obama’s speech at Burma’s Rangoon University has been mostly welcomed as inspirational and supportive of political reforms, though some criticized his comments on the country’s western Rakhine state as inaccurate.
In a speech praised by many of Burma’s influential figures for supporting the country’s fledgling but dramatic democratic reforms, President Obama congratulated Burma for moving to civilian rule, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and loosening its grip on the media.
Obama, who called the United States a partner in Burma’s journey to reform, noted that, prisoners of conscience remain jailed within its borders, poverty remains a challenge and ethnic-rebel insurgencies remain unresolved.
“It is very encourag[ing] for our people,” said Nge Nge Aye Maung, chairwoman of Myanmar Disabled Women’s Affairs Association, describing the experience of hearing the speech as brilliant and significant. “I think maybe this old Burma to transfer to a new Burma.”
The president also urged dignity for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Burma’s western Rakhine state. Many in Burma consider the Rohingya – a group stripped of citizenship by a 1982 law and often referenced by official media in derogatory terms – illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Clashes this year between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists left at least 170 people dead and more than 100,000 homeless, most of them Muslims.
Obama said embracing everyone within Burma’s borders is not a weakness, but a strength.
“Because he said that to use the diversity to develop a country – it is really encouraging,” said Thin Zar Khin Myo Win, a Muslim activist for interfaith peace who said he was moved by President Obama’s comments on the value of freedom of speech and worship, and the need to embrace diversity.
“This is very, very good points for our people,” he said.
Rakhine Nationalities Development Party spokesperson Oo Hla Saw described Obama’s comments on Rakhine state as inaccurate.
“His comments are very far away from the reality of what is happening in Rakhine – historically, economically, politically,” he said. “So we are very disappointed for his comments.”
Burma political analyst Thant Myint-U, an American-born author, scholar and former United Nations diplomat, said despite the sensitivity of the Rohingya issue, it was expected that Obama would address it.
“I think it is good that he placed it within the larger context of this country needing to see diversity as a strength, rather than as a weakness,” he said. “And I think it was good in a way that he tried to link it back also to the struggles and problems in the history of American democracy as well.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who helped lead the 1988 student democracy uprising, seemed to descibe the speech as both encouraging and sobering.
“Only the citizens of the country should find the solution to the conflict,” he said. “But it is important to get help and understanding on Burma’s reforms from the president of the world’s most powerful nation, as well as the international community.”
The president will depart Rangoon this afternoon to attend a dinner at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.