YANGON (Reuters) - Human rights groups say President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Myanmar is too soon and risks rewarding a half-baked democracy. For many in Myanmar, however, it’s not soon enough.
“Things would have been quite different if a U.S. president had come to us much earlier,” said teacher Thein Aung, 37, as crowds lined streets in the commercial capital, Yangon, for the first visit to Myanmar by a serving U.S. president.
“But, as the saying goes, better late than never.”
Facebook erupted with positive comments on Monday, with users sharing photos of the president strolling barefoot through the Shwedagon, Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist pagoda, or pecking Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi on the cheek after a meeting at her lakeside home.
“President Obama is being partial. He didn’t kiss the president,” joked a Facebook user called Ko Lay. Obama met President Thein Sein earlier on Monday.
Decades of hardline military rule drove Myanmar into poverty and isolation, with brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protests and the persecution of Suu Kyi turning the country also known as Burma into a global pariah.
For some, Obama’s arrival marked the start of a new era of respect for the Southeast Asian nation of 60 million people strategically placed between China and India.
“His visit to Myanmar will surely strengthen the good impression of our country among the international community,” said Chan Tun, 90, a veteran politician and former Myanmar ambassador to China. “We all should be very proud of it.”
“I do hope he gives us more help and assistance for our faster and smoother transition to democracy,” he said.
Obama’s arrival coincided with the release of dozens of political prisoners from jails across Myanmar.
By Monday afternoon, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners confirmed the release of 52 inmates, “the majority of them political prisoners.” More than 200 remained behind bars, the group added.
Lae Lae Win, the wife of prominent dissident Myint Aye, credited the release of her husband to Obama, who spoke at Yangon University on Monday afternoon of “a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many”.
“We must thank him for the release of some political prisoners including my husband,” said Lae Lae Win. “I hope the remaining political prisoners are freed soonest.”
Despite the emotional moments, many also realize that Obama’s six-hour trip to Myanmar is part of dry-eyed shifting of the U.S. strategic focus eastwards. The so-called Asia pivot is also meant to counter China’s rising influence.
“His visit will help Myanmar reduce unnecessary reliance on China but I don’t mean we should kick out China,” said Thein Aung. “We need to have very good neighbourly ties with them too.”
International relations are a distant concern for taxi driver Hla Htay, 36. He is more worried about the paralyzing impact of Obama’s motorcade on Yangon’s already traffic-snarled streets.
“I missed an order from a regular customer as I was late because of the traffic problems this morning,” he grumbled.
Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Robert Birsel