Obama's Myanmar speech layered with popular appeal

Associated Press Modified: November 19, 2012 at 8:15 am •  Published: November 19, 2012
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — President Barack Obama spoke to hundreds of students, officials and former generals in long-closed Myanmar about freedom and the importance of finding strength in diversity. But for some, the more significant message came from what he did, not what he said.

Instead of traveling to the isolated capital, Naypyitaw, Obama became the first foreign leader to meet with President Thein Sein in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and cultural heart.

While the government says the location was chosen for logistical reasons, many cheered Obama's decision to give a speech at the University of Yangon, a place brimming with opposition history and personal memories for many in the audience, rather than sequester himself with top leaders in the empty, soulless capital built by the former military junta in 2006.

"The arrangement was made for mutual convenience," said Zaw Htay, the director of the president's office. "Due to time constraints on the part of President Obama and also because Obama wanted to deliver a speech at Yangon University, it was agreed by both sides to have a meeting in Yangon."

The diverse 1,500-member audience — students, activists, lawmakers, former generals and members of ethnic minority groups — mingled for several hours, listening to jazz music, while waiting for Obama to arrive. Everyone, including the former generals and parliamentarians, had to walk through the same security gauntlet. There was no VIP line, which surprised some in this hierarchical society.

"We couldn't even think of that two or three months ago," said Rebecca Htin, an ethnic Karen. "The message is clear. We are moving more toward democracy. That's encouraging for me."

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