Category Archives: Obama

Obama deepens ties with the youth of Southeast Asia (or “The day I saw Obama”)

President Obama at Yangon University on 14 November 2014
President Obama at Yangon University on 14 November 2014

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.

Obama the orator in full swing
Obama the orator in full swing

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.

Thanks to the White House for including me among the press pool for the event
Thanks to the White House for including me among the press pool for the event

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.

Lighting test
Lighting test

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.

Secret service!
Secret service!

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.

No doubt a much needed snack break prior to Obama's address
No doubt a much needed snack break prior to Obama’s address

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.”

Yangon University's Diamond Jubilee Hall
Yangon University’s Diamond Jubilee Hall

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.

Source: Facebook
Source: Facebook

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.

Sherpa and Jess in a high state of excitement
Sherpa and Jess in a high state of excitement

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.

The million dollar smile
The million dollar smile

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. Continue reading Obama deepens ties with the youth of Southeast Asia (or “The day I saw Obama”)

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Fox News comes unhinged with Dr Ablow’s racial slurs against Obama

Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks
Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks

The racial slurs levelled against President Obama this week by a member of Fox News’ ‘Medical A Team’ (whatever that means?!) Dr Keith Ablow have made headlines around the world – and for good reason. Ablow has accused Obama of seeking to infect Americans with Ebola because “his affiliations are with Africa.” While reductionist statements are common among US conservatives, his took offensiveness to an entirely new level.

Ablow’s conspiracy theory may be summarised as follows: Obama is not acting in the best interests of Americans because he is African and therefore ideologically opposed to sealing off US borders with Ebola-infected countries.

His premise begins with the president’s name itself.

Dr Ablow said: “This guy [President Barack Obama]… has names very similar to two of our arch-enemies, Osama, well, Obama. And Hussein. Hussein.”

While speaking with Fox News Radio, Ablow accused the president of believing – “if only unconsciously” – that the US has inflicted a “plague of colonialism” on the world and that travel restrictions on African countries would thus be unfair.

Whilst Ablow’s arguments are too ridiculous to dismantle piece-by-piece, a quick glance over his Wikipedia page reveals that the psychiatrist-cum-media-personality is no stranger to controversy – and may in fact court it, as I will endeavour to illustrate below.

Yet before documenting Ablow’s most notorious gaffes in recent years, may I not-so-respectfully point out that his own name is rather unfortunate in the context of his profession as a psychiatrist (he wanted to get personal, right?). And come to think of it, does “Ablow” not sound a little like “Ebola”? Hmmm… must be sinister…

According to Wikipedia, “Ablow has made a number of controversial statements, including psychological assessments of various celebrities he has never examined that have drawn criticism from other practitioners in his field, as well as from various organisations and groups which were offended by his comments.”

Remark 1 – 

On August 12, 2014, Dr Ablow said that First Lady Michelle Obama “needs to drop a few [pounds].”

He apparently continued on this track whilst appearing on a television show aired later that month: he told female panelists that they too needed to lose weight.

Remark 2  –

During the 2012 Republican primary elections, Ablow penned a column arguing that Newt Gingrich’s three marriages made him more qualified to be president.

He wrote: “When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.”

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative was one of many who publicly voiced criticism over Dr Ablow’s remarks.

“At some point, you have to wonder when shamelessness crosses the line from character defect to psychopathology. If only Dr. Leo Spaceman were a Republican, he could have a lucrative career on Fox,” he said.

Remark 3  –

In April 2011, Ablow wrote a health column for FoxNews.com which criticised designer Jenna Lyons for publishing an advertisement that showed her painting her young son’s toenails a shade of hot pink.

Ablow asserted that gender distinctions are “part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race”.

Despite the ensuing controversy this caused, Ablow held firm (in contrast to the subsequent apologies he proffered following the outcry over remarks 1 and 2). He re-posted the column on his Facebook page as proof of his conviction.

Remark 4 –

Ablow is keen on volunteering diagnoses for public figures, despite the fact that he has never personally treated them. One of the most notable concerned Vice President Joe Biden: following Biden’s speech in the 2012 VP Performance, Ablow wrote a column for FoxNews.com that suggested he suffered from dementia.

Shrink-cum-media-personality

Whilst Ablow is indeed a qualified psychiatrist, the bulk of his professional time is spent in media. In addition to writing health columns for FoxNews.com, Ablow has published 15 books and made countless TV appearances – including the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is also a radio broadcast regular and his articles have appeared in a variety of print publications.

Ablow hosted his own TV show for a little over year, before it was axed in 2007 due to ratings that averaged out at one percent of America’s TV audience. On October 17, 2006 “The Dr Keith Ablow Show” secured an exclusive interview with John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to murdering the child beauty pageant star, Jon-Benet Ramsey. Ablow surreptitiously videotaped his source and afterwards stated that John Mark Karr was a “textbook case of pedophilia” and would pose a threat to society after being released from prison.

Ablow severed his ties with the American Psychiatric Association in 2012, when he announced in a FoxNews.com column that he had “resigned in protest” – but neglected to mention the reasons for doing so. The column was titled, “Be wary of the American Psychiatric Association” and you can read it here.

Ever the optimist, in January 2013 Ablow expressed an ambition to take part in politics. Despite a complete lack of experience, Ablow suggested he contest the seat left vacant by John Kerry as a Republican candidate. He backed down two months later to make way for other Republican hopefuls.

No doubt President Obama isn’t losing sleep over Ablow’s latest remark – yet the fact that Fox News and others continue to give Dr Ablow air-time is both worrying and incomprehensible to many. Surely there’s a better candidate out there?

Burma or Myanmar: Will the US make the switch?

Published in The Myanmar Times on 19 November 2012

A t-shirt worn by someone welcoming Obama at Yangon airport on 19 November 2012
A t-shirt worn by someone welcoming Obama at Yangon airport on 19 November 2012

During my first language lesson in Yangon with my teacher Zar Chi and a fellow student from the United States, the “Burma” versus “Myanmar” question arose.

Our topic that evening was “Making Friends” so we were learning how to ask and respond to questions about national and ethnic origin. When I mentioned that I was surprised to have seen references to “Rangoon” rather than Yangon on the US embassy’s website, Nathalie said – with complete sincerity – “That’s because the US is a country that believes in human rights.”

Yet to me, “Rangoon” conjures up the gin and tonics sipped on the balcony of the British Club in the 1920s (albeit in Katha and not the capital), described so hauntingly by George Orwell in Burmese Days.

Like Yangon, Burma is a British name; a corruption of Bamar, which is actually the colloquial term for Myanmar. Both historically refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, which today comprises about 68 percent of a population that includes some 130 ethnic minorities.

Colonisers and invaders, whether the British, the Mughals or so on, often had difficulty pronouncing indigenous place names: Like a young child who creates their own version of a three-syllable name, it often sticks.

Myanmar’s former military rulers changed the country’s official name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, which they claimed better represented the country’s ethnic diversity. However this remains hotly disputed.

When I arrived in the country four months ago, I was a staunch “Burmist,” because in years past, the BBC and other Western media outlets – not to mention Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – had instilled in me a political, pro-democracy association with the word.

However I quickly learnt to mimic my local colleagues and friends, the vast majority of whom refer to the language and people as Myanmar (which I also learnt is pronounced Me-An-Mah). When speaking to expats, I sometimes (somewhat guiltily) revert to Burma. Among politically minded people living outside the country – mostly in the US and the United Kingdom, using the “M-word” is likely to result in icy stares and a huffy change of subject.

Crowds ready to welcome Obama at Yangon International Airport, 19 November 2012
Crowds ready to welcome Obama at Yangon International Airport, 19 November 2012

As Mark Farmener, of Burma Campaign UK told the BBC in 2011, “Often you can tell where someone’s sympathies lie if they use Burma or Myanmar. Myanmar is a kind of indicator of countries that are soft on the regime.”

However this perception is changing, as is the country itself.

Nevertheless, among the less travelled (including my Melbourne-based travel agent in 2006), “Myanmar” often results in blank stares – a fact several Myanmar people acknowledged when interviewed.

“I say Burma when I travel overseas,” said a citizen called Aung Min.

Although Germany officially uses Myanmar, as does the United Nations, ASEAN, Russia, Norway, China, India (itself also officially known as Bharat in its constitution), Australia and Japan, a German tourist in Yangon called Yudith told The Myanmar Times, “I’ve heard it’s politically incorrect to say Myanmar. Informally, in Germany we call it Birma.”

Her friend Ran chipped in, “If I knew what I should call [the country], that would be really good.”

Although the names confound many well-meaning foreigners, the majority of locals interviewed by The Myanmar Times said they were totally unaware that Myanmar and Burma have different political connotations in the West.

Aung Min, 49, said, “I like the sound of Myanmar. Most Myanmar people prefer it, as well as Yangon. It’s easier to pronounce.”

However he did say that his friends sometimes argue about which name should be used – although Zar Chi’s parents accept Myanmar, she said that many older people remain fond of Burma.

A former government officer, 73-year-old Ram Gopal, told The Myanmar Times, “I like the name Myanmar, because I like the government. I had no problem with Burma being a British name, but whatever the government does, I like.”

Twenty-two-year-old Naw Naw explained things a little differently.

She said, “We usually say Burma whenever we speak in English, and always have, so many wondered why the government changed the name to Myanmar for English use. However my opinions on the issue aren’t very strong – I just see people, not a label.”

Naw Naw added that citizens’ identity cards never state “Myanmar” as a nationality – in Naw Naw’s case, it says, Bamar + Mon + Karen, because her father is Karen and her mother is both Mon and Bamar.

“It’s confusing,” she said with a shrug.

A sign at Yangon airport the morning Obama landed in Yangon
A sign at Yangon airport the morning Obama landed in Yangon

A former insurgent whose ethnicity is Mon and Bamar who spent 10 years living in the jungle told The Myanmar Times, “People inside the country have called it Myanmar for a very long time, so at the time the name was changed it was no big deal to us. It was more about the army trying to control everything. I would accept either name if it were put to a vote. I didn’t like it when the government told people like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi not to say Burma.”

Until pre-publication censorship was abolished in August this year, the word ‘Burma’ was prohibited in news reports.

The former insurgent said, “The government has stopped telling people what to call the country and little by little, other countries are beginning to use Myanmar. But both names are problematic: Burma was inherited from the British and when the military government took over, the name was changed to Myanmar. The young generation is confused.”

And yet the confusion isn’t new. When the independence movement took root in the 1930s, there was no consensus among nationalists about whether to use Bamar or Myanma (incidentally, the ‘r’ is still often dropped today).

Zaw Win, 30, said he has grown up knowing the country as Myanmar and the term is his preference – but he remains saddened that the national flag was changed in 2010, because the stripes of the previous one represented the 14 provinces of the country, whereas the design of the new flag is meaningless to him.

The former insurgent said that some ethnic minorities believe that Myanmar, like Burma, only represents the majority ethnic group. Neither is totally representative of the estimated population of 55 million – though few countries’ names in this world can claim to be so either.

He also pointed out that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says Myanmar when speaking in the Myanmar language, but uses Burma when speaking in English: a fact little known to many in the West.

Mr Derek Tonkin, a prominent Myanmar analyst and former British diplomat, told The Myanmar Times that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is “taking a softer line” on the Burma versus Myanmar issue.

Mr Tonkin said, “While in the US, she said it was more a generational thing and because she belonged to the older generation, she prefers to call the country Burma. That’s a shift, but the fact remains that there is no escape from ‘Myanmar’ in terms of formal UN procedures and diplomatic protocol, since Diplomatic Notes or Credentials using ‘Burma’ are simply ‘returned to sender.’”

During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar last year, she said neither Burma nor Myanmar, but instead referred to it as “the country”. The EU also dodges a decision by officially calling it Burma/Myanmar.

Zar Chi said, “It’s frustrating. Other countries should respect our official name.”

Hillary Clinton - a (barely visible) wave
Hillary Clinton – a (barely visible) wave

In recent times, the linguistic waters of international relations have been further muddied due to Myanmar’s rapid, albeit incomplete, series of political reforms that began with elections and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010. The same year, Burma Campaign UK ended its call for tourists to boycott the country.

Today, Myanmar is welcoming US President Obama, whom Vanity Fair described in 2009 as “the most famous living person in the history of the world.” The significance of the visit from the very man who repopularised the true meaning of “change” cannot be underestimated.

Whilst life in Myanmar remains a daily struggle for millions, Mr Obama would be the first to acknowledge that life in America can also be calamitous, and I believe he would seek to work together with Myanmar to improve the lot of both nations, while respecting the name of a sovereign, non-military-led nation. For as Louis Armstrong famously concluded about the metaphorical difference between saying potatoes or potahtos and tomatoes or tomahtos in Let’s call the whole thing off, “For we know we need each other, so we better call the calling off off!”