When Obama became the first US president to pay an official visit to Myanmar in 2012, I camped out at Yangon International Airport for hours in the hope that I’d catch a glimpse of my all-time favourite politician. Whilst it was pretty exciting to see Hilary Clinton give a stately wave from the backseat of a black limo, Obama himself was more elusive. I went off to work at The Myanmar Times, while my determined husband Sherpa spent the next seven hours traversing the sealed off streets – and was ultimately rewarded. That night, Sherpa showed me his Smartphone footage of Obama passing in a car as bystanders whooped joyfully. The regret I felt about not having played hooky that day lasted almost exactly two years, until Obama returned to Yangon and I was given the opportunity to see him in the flesh.
I’m not going to hide the fact that I’ve suffered from “Obamania” since Barack first shot to fame as a youthful senator making a bid for the White House. In fact, one of the first articles I ever published was on Sky.net – it was an editorial celebrating his ultimate victory. While I never seem to tire of making drunken pro-Obama arguments to “the cynics”, many of my friends and acquaintances no doubt did a long time ago. Thus, the fact that I am on a hiatus from journalism until March failed to deter me from applying for a coveted position in the White House Press Pool at Yangon University on November 14, where the US President was scheduled to take part in a town hall session with representatives from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Institute. Even though it felt pretty silly, I decided to apply to the US embassy to cover the event as a blogger. “Don’t ask, don’t get,” I said to Sherpa by way of sheepish explanation. As for Sherpa, who is the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Business Today, it seemed a fait accompli that his application would be accepted (which it was, happily). In an email to the US embassy press contact, I pasted links to the half dozen articles I’ve written about Obama over the years (as well as a special report on his visit for The Myanmar Times in 2012). For good measure (?!) I also dropped in the fact that my blog contains an Obama category (which is otherwise categorised by country). Although I believe the US administration is among the world’s most progressive, I was still completely shocked to receive an email confirming my application the next day.
I woke up on Friday feeling nervous – like I was about to take an exam or something. It was really very stupid. I struggled to eat my omelet before blow-drying my hair (I never do that) and then pottered around the house with a total lack of concentration. I set off at 1pm: three hours before Obama was due to come on stage. The first cab driver dumped me at a sealed-off intersection near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house – which is miles away from Yangon University. Groups of men wearing NLD armbands were lounging in the park with tiffin containers. I showed one group the directions I’d printed out, but they seem disinclined to stand up and help me translate them to a taxi driver. After several unsuccessful attempts (for which I don’t blame the cabbies – Yangon’s roads had been turned into a mess of dead-end streets), a couple of kind young girls stopped to help me and I was soon in taxi number two. As it was only an hour until the cut-off time for media admissions, I was flooded with relief when Yangon University finally came into view. I caught sight of my friend Joe and felt even more relieved to know that I must also be somewhere near the west entrance – the only one we could enter. However before I had time to leap out, the driver was zooming across Hledyan overpass. I walked back a kilometre or so in the heavy drizzle while sweating profusely. Both sides of the six-lane road were lined with bored looking soldiers.
When I finally arrived at the gate, I gave my name to the embassy personnel and held a business card at the ready. A man scanned several pages before telling me, “Your name isn’t on the list.” That’s a horrible phrase in every circumstance, but for this one in particular it was heart-breaking. While glancing at the names and organisations of the permitted media crew, I realised I’d told him M for Mudditt, not J for Jessica. He flicked back to the J section and my name was promptly crossed off. The next step was the most intimidating – being cleared by security for entry. A dozen odd men wearing suits and civilian dress (I assumed some were members of the secret service) were handling the procedure, which started with another name check.
I handed over my bags to a giant of a man and was told to wait while a sniffer dog inspected them. I watched anxiously as the dog’s handler unzipped my handbag to allow the German Shepherd a closer look – I didn’t know what type of article would be deemed inadmissible at such an event, or what the consequences would be for possessing it. Anyhow, after being swiped back and front with a metal detector, my bags were returned to me and I was handed two cookies in cling-wrap. I obviously looked muddled, for the the man grinned at me and said, “They’re from the US Embassy.” They were really good.
I soon found Sherpa and other familiar faces in the Diamond Jubilee Hall. It was an exciting scene to take in, with massive US and Myanmar flags and a tonne of security personnel talking into earpieces. The waiting music included tracks by Nina Simone and the Buena Vista Social Club: “how typically cool,” I thought to myself. Members of the White House press corps arrived – a few of whom looked like Chelsea Clinton’s cousins. But President Obama wasn’t due to appear for another two hours and I wondered how on earth we’d pass the time – which was passing more slowly by the minute. However as it turned out, the waiting period was a half hour less than we expected, and offered us the chance to play “Swap the rumour/fact.”
One journalist told me that 800 members of White House staff were in town to assist with preparations for Obama’s visit to Myanmar, which also included an ASEAN conference in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw (weary journalists informed me that it wasn’t much chop). Another journalist told me that Burmese police officers had visited the homes of some foreigners in the middle of the night for Obama-related purposes (what the purpose could have been was unclear to us). Another said that Obama’s visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house earlier in the day had lasted two hours. He showed me a Facebook album someone had posted called “Kissing Photos” – it included the one below.
When I later started chatting with a member of the US embassy, I tried cross-checking my facts. He insisted it was all nonsense and to divide the number of staff and visiting periods by at least half.
When the stage lighting was suddenly switched on, a ripple of excitement passed through an already excited crowd. I’d opted to stand in the still photographer’s section because the text section had an inferior view (and I was told I allowed to choose because I would be both writing and taking pictures). “And now, the President of the United States, Barack Obama!” said a voice over the loudspeakers as the American anthem played.
I stood awed – I’d sort of expected Obama to be preceded by a brass band or something. But there he was, just 10 or so metres in front of me. And he’d started talking, but I couldn’t hear him. I guess that’s what’s called being star-struck – it lasted for about 15 minutes. I madly took photos while trying to balance my recorder on my bag or jot down notes (which was unnecessary, because the entire transcript of his speech is here). I was unaware that I’d also been stumbling into the journalist next to me from the Associated Press, who was doing her best to record a steady image of Obama. With great professionalism, she slid one hand firmly across my straying bag whilst keeping her other hand on the equipment and staring straight ahead. I later saw her leave the university compound at a quick trot.
Although I’d been initially disappointed to learn that Obama would not be giving a speech as such, but would instead take part in a Q&A session, this more unusual format turned out to be incredibly inspiring to witness – particularly to see him interact with young people. Clearly, he likes them a lot. He began by saying, “Whenever I travel the world… one of the things I most enjoy doing is meeting young men and women like you. It’s more fun than being in a conference room. And it’s also more important — because you are the young leaders who will determine the future of this country and this region.”
Obama’s administration launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (which currently has 10,000 representatives) “to deepen America’s engagement with the next generation of leaders in government and civil society, in education and in entrepreneurship.” Makes sense to me. As does this: “… the future of this region… is not going to be determined by dictators or by armies, it’s going to be determined by entrepreneurs and inventors and dreamers and people who are doing things in the community. And you’re going to be the leaders who make that happen. Your generation has greater potential to shape society than any generation that’s come before because you have the power to get knowledge from everywhere, and you have more sophistication and experiences than your parents or your grandparents. “ After speaking about Myanmar’s reform process, which has seen “setbacks and false starts, and sometimes even reverses,” Obama went to quote a Burmese saying – in Burmese, to the delight of many of the guests. “So for those Americans who don’t speak Burmese as well as I do,” he continued, “That means, ‘Dive until you reach the sand, climb until you reach the top. Keep persevering.’ More applause.
However Obama’s repeated references to troubled “Rakeen” State did not go unnoticed by the feisty young crowd. The first person to ask a question teased Obama for his error – to which Obama responded by saying, “I am still working on my pronunciation.” Needless to say, each time Obama called for the next question, a flock of hands waved wildly in the air, each competing for his attention. He explained that he would alternate from boy to girl, because “societies that are most successful also treat their women and girls with respect.” Yet despite the ensuing applause, neither girls nor boys seemed to want to follow the rule, with boys raising their hands during the girls’ turns and vice-versa. But it was an excellent point to make all the same. When two girls sitting next to each other both wanted to ask a question, Obama asked if they were friends. When told that they were, he said that a game of rock, paper, scissors should determine the outcome. When one won with rock over scissors, Obama and the girl agreed that “she rocked.”
Later, a young man was chosen to ask a question, but when Obama saw that he was holding a piece of A4 paper with questions listed on both sides, Obama confiscated the paper and jokingly told him to just go ahead and ask one (“I’ll read the rest,” he assured him).
When the crowd erupted into laughter when a law student asked Obama what he would do if he were president of Myanmar, Obama’s first reaction was diplomatic: “Well, let me just say, you’re always popular in somebody else’s country. When you’re in your own country, everybody is complaining.”
Nonetheless Obama did go on to state that Myanmar’s priorities should include completing the transition to democracy, holding the 2015 elections without delay, constitutional amendment to create a fully civilian government, and new laws to protect freedom of expression – particularly for the press (who continue to be intimidated, silenced and even murdered in Myanmar). Obama’s emphasis on the importance of national, rather than ethnic unity, was a point well worth making, as ongoing tensions between hard-line Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar has left hundreds of people dead and thousands living in grotesque conditions in IDP camps in Rakhine State. “If people think in terms of ethnic identity before national identity, then I think over time the country will start breaking apart and democracy will not work. So there has to be a sense of common purpose,” Obama explained.
The session lasted an hour and 20 minutes (I know that because I looked at the time log on the AP journalist’s video camera). And when it did, a mood of elation seemed to have filled the room. How much each individual took away from the rousing calls to action and thought is of course impossible to know. But to watch young people from 11 different countries reach out to try to shake Obama’s hand as he slowly made his way away the room seemed to indicate that at least some of his messages would not be forgotten. That’s important, because Southeast Asia still has a long way to go in terms of becoming democratic societies – and also because present governments and regimes appear disinclined to follow through on that.
Sherpa and I wandered out of Yangon University feeling dazed by the experience. We felt that beers were most definitely in order, so we lugged our cameras and assorted bags through throngs of people until we finally reached a popular beer station called Ko San. We sat down and ordered two Tiger beers. “Sorry, no beer today,” said the waitress. Her explanation for the complete lack of alcohol was simply “Obama.”
Perhaps Ko San’s management team had decided that Yangon’s youth couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace after such an exciting event. But we couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t a decision Obama would agree with.