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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”)

Stirring words and breaking promises? Defending Obama’s role in the Middle East uprisings

As the Middle East continues its bloody tussle for democracy, the “leader of the free world,” US President Barack Obama, is fielding criticisms for his lack of direct involvement.  His role as a moral referee disappoints those who expected his contribution to be greater – because, they argue, he exalted the benefits of democracy during a speech in Cairo in 2009.  Respected British journalist Robert Fisk tinkered with Obama’s own metaphor vis-à-vis Iran when he said, “One of the blights of history will now involve a U.S. president who held out his hand to the Islamic world and then clenched his fist when it fought a dictatorship and demanded democracy…”

In separate articles, Fisk describes the Obama administration’s response to the uprisings in the Middle East as “pussyfooting nonsense” and again cries foul of promises made and broken, “So when the Arabs want dignity and self-respect, when they cry out for the very future which Obama outlined in his famous – now, I suppose, infamous – Cairo speech of June 2009, we show them disrespect and casuistry.”  Other journalists, such as Gerald Greene, echo the sentiment, “The way that the Obama administration has been reacting to the Egyptian Revolution… is making his June 2009 Cairo speech appear insincere and just another dose of soaring Obama rhetoric…”

Such accusations are unfair, but not new.  When Iran erupted in mass protests following its presidential elections — eight days after Obama’s speech in Cairo — commentators denounced his reaction (condemning the violence against protesters) as too timid and demanded direct intervention.  But other than persuading Twitter from undertaking planned maintenance during the prime organising hours of Iran’s opposition, Obama steadfastly refused to take practical measures.  This prompted his erstwhile rival, Senator John McCain, to say, “It’s almost as if the president lacks confidence in the greatness of his own nation.  He seems unwilling to aggressively project American global power, as if it were something to be ashamed of.”  When asked whether direct intervention would undermine Iran’s sovereignty, McCain exclaimed righteously, “… I don’t consider it meddling when you stand on the side of principles that made our nation the greatest in history.”

But it was precisely this sort of arrogant interference that made the United States unpopular among Arab states – indeed, around the world.  And it is an attitude Obama specifically sought to distance himself from when he addressed the Islamic world from Cairo.  He said, “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire…”  In his own eloquent way, he added – “any more.”

Obama was well aware that he wasn’t the first US president to wax lyrical about the benefits of democracy for the Middle East.  His predecessor, George W. Bush, denounced the “legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin” left by dictatorships in Iraq and Syria and in 2003 he suggested that some governments in the region – specifically Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen – were “beginning to see the need for change.”  Unlike Obama, Bush was prepared to use direct intervention to achieve his vision for a better world – he called it “The Freedom Agenda.”  With stunning contradiction, American forces invaded Iraq after the 9/11 attacks and Bush announced that his goal was to spread freedom in the Middle East.  He compared his push for global democracy with the legacy of his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan.  During the Cold War, Reagan, a staunch opponent of communism, ordered the creation of a nuclear defense shield (dubbed “Star Wars” by disbelieving critics) and issued statements such as the following, “The Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.”  (Incidentally, Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 in an attempt to assassinate Gaddafi.) And as Obama pointed out in Cairo, it was during the Cold War, that “Muslim nations were treated as proxies.”  At any rate, despite Bush’s rhetoric and gung-ho foreign policies, few outside his Republican party were convinced that his motives were sincere.  The recipients of his ‘agenda’ made it clear during repeated anti-US protests that they did not appreciate the gesture – nor the thinly-veiled self-interest contained within.

Furthermore, Fisk’s criticisms are somewhat contradictory.  On the one hand, he has accused the United States and Europe of “turning our backs… on the wind of change… blowing across the Arab world” but apportioned blame to these outside powers when Mubarak appointed a cronie vice-president before stepping down, “…ex-air force General Mubarak is put out to graze so that ex-intelligence General Suleiman can take over the regime on behalf of America and Israel.”  A day after Fisk’s comments appeared, Suleiman succumbed to the pressure exerted by millions of protesters, by announcing that Mubarak was stepping down and he too ceased being vice-president.  When the prime minister appointed by Muburak also resigned, Bassem Kamel, a member of the coalition involved in the uprising tweeted, “First, we ousted Mubarak. Secondly, we got rid of Shafiq. We have become again the owners of this country.”  Throughout the uprisings in Egypt, Obama said he had been struck by the lack of anti-US sentiment, because “they felt we hadn’t tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it.”  What substantial evidence gives Fisk cause to believe otherwise?

Indeed, what was refreshing about Obama’s speech in Cairo was the fact that he expressed his support for the spread of democracy in the region while emphasising that any such transitions would not be steered by the United States.  He approached the subject with sensitivity — by first acknowledging that it has become a thorny one, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.  So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”  Obama recognised that meaningful political reform can only be achieved from within, and that it may take on many forms.  He said, “Each nation gives life to this principle [of representative government] in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.  America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.”  The 44th US president proceeded to quote its third, Thomas Jefferson, “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Obama also made it clear that if a struggle to oust a repressive regime should fail and a humanitarian crisis ensue, the U.S. would act according to the consensus of the United Nations (nevertheless, Obama placed sanctions on Libyan dictator Gaddafi’s assets two days before the UN passed an unanimous resolution to do so).  America “cannot impose peace,” he said, but would “align our policies with those who pursue peace.”  After concluding his remarks on democracy, a member of the audience in Cairo yelled out, “Barack Obama, we love you!”

Obama’s approach to the uprisings in the Middle East reflects an awareness that the region has tired of the colonialism to which it owes its very name.  In Cairo, he said, “More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims…”  Meddling, irrespective of the potential to disguise it, is out.  Why?  Because America didn’t like it either. When re-branding America to the Muslim world and beyond, Obama reminded his audience that the US was “born out of revolution against an empire” – that same British empire (plus a French one) that partitioned the Middle East into separate nations following the First World War, and retained a colonial presence until the 1970s – from which point the US (and its endorsed dictatorships) largely took over.  When Obama campaigned for the US presidency on the basis that he represented change, why can’t we believe that he meant it?