Friday, November 14, 2014

One Take on President Obama's Speech in Yangon

My president visited Yangon today. I knew it was happening. I had no idea what his itinerary was, but since I had plans today that involved riding way out to the outskirts of town, my biggest concern was that the various motorcades (the Chinese and Japanese heads of state are also here today, and traffic on any normal afternoon is horrible enough on it its) might get in the way of the important thing I was planning. Now, I'm wiping small tears from eyes as I've finished watching Barack Obama deliver a speech to and answer questions from a group of young people here in Yangon.

Was Obama's speech particularly
moving? Well, no, not really. His message was more about the challenges facing the region of Southeast Asia as a whole and how the USA was hoping to help with that rather than anything specific to Myanmar.

During the speech, Obama seemed tired. Of course he was. It was 4 AM Washington DC time. He'd woke up this morning in Beijing, and had already had an earlier meeting today and long talk with the Nobel lauraete Aung Sang Suu Kyii. I called him 'my president'; I voted for him twice. Six years is a long time on his job, and I could see the weariness in his eyes. He didn't look like that when I left America in 2013. Travel, the mid-terms and just the grind of the being the 'leader of the free world' takes a toll on a guy.

There was an extensive question and answer session following his speech at this ASEAN Youth Summit, and the crowd really loved having him there. They do love Obama here. Today was his second visit to Myanmar. His first, just two years ago, was the first time any American president had visited this country.

I knew I'd be able to catch the coverage of the visit as I rolled home via taxi from the aforementioned important thing I had to do today. See, even though it was just before 4 in the afternoon, there were already large crowds at the ubiqutous Yangon roadside teashops, all watching the TV screens just as they do when an important soccer match is being shown. I wondered what they were watching and craned my neck to get a view. I saw pictures of Air Force One landing. I stopped at one of my regular Mom & Pop shops on my way home. The shopkeeper asked me if I had joined the crowds on the nearby central road which had been the path the Obama motorcade. I hadn't, but if I had known... All these clues added up to me knowing I could see more on my TV when I got home, and perhaps witness my president during his visit to my current town.

This country faces some extremely difficult and long-lasting issues. Myanmar has had 65 years of non-stop civil war. It's the longest ongoing armed conflict in the world, and the struggle these last few years is to get a lasting cease-fire, much less any actual true peace settlement. In brief, Myanmar is country of dozens of ethnicities; if you're on one side of the dispute, you'd call them 'nationalities'. For decades, armies of the ethnic groups have resisted and fought the central power, mostly comprised of people of the dominant Bamar (from which Burma gets its name) people. Not only has their been civil war, there's also devastating poverty (Myanmar is Asia's second-poorest country), natural disasters, corruption, oppression of civil rights and freedom of speech. Yeah, Myanmar is a real maelstrom of issues.

You can't expect the president of the USA to be an expert on everything, and the young people at the Q&A session were asking really tough questions on specific issues would have been difficult for a Myanmar expert to answer. Still, he asked for it, and I guess he is probably used to answering questions internationally on domestic issues that really have nothing to do with USA . So, I suppose I can excuse my president for not answering the crowd's questions as eloquently and completely as I was answering for him in my head.

For example, the first question asked of him was from a young man from Rakhine State who asked how he could foster greater tolerance from his fellow (Buddhist) Myanmar youth. He wanted advice as to how to influence his friends and neighborrs. The subtext here has to do with the almost institutional hatred some Rakhine people (and the state gov't) have for a certain minority there who call themselves the Rohingya people. The gov't here won't even acknowledge the name Rohingya, instead insisting on calling them Bengali, and insisting they are illegal immigrants. This minority has been the object of infamous discrimination and oppression. That they are Muslims makes this easier to accept for the Myanmar, 90% of whom are Buddhist. Obama's answer started well. He mentioned that no country can ever be successful if it is divided against itself. I thought he was going to advise appealing to these folk's own nationalism and self-interest; tell your friends Myanmar will never join the ranks of developed nations if they can't accept and tolerate marginally external ethnicities. Instead, he obfuscated for a while, and then told the guy that anytime one of his friends said something racist, he shouldn't just sit back and listen. He should step up and say that no, racist hate speech is wrong.

Umm, okay, sort of a passive anti-intolerance approach. Wait for it happen, then react. I've heard this same tactic for promoting pluralism advocated by other diversity 'experts' in the USA. It may even be the right approach for the USA. But on Myanmar's west coast, where thousands of Rohingya live on eggshells in fear of pogroms and the majority's hatred, I think a more proactive approach to promoting religious and ethnic tolerance is called for. For example, just today, the governor of Rakhine attacked the SecGen of the United Nations for even using the word 'Rohingya' in comments the SecGen had made earlier week. Oh, c'mon. The situation in Rakhine State is more serious than perhaps Obama is aware (or was made aware of by his aides), and his advice was stupid and inadequate.

My next criticism of Obama is really a matter of basic 'cultural awareness 101'. Perhaps, on a more meta level, even just 'being nice 101'. A young lady in the crowd stood up to ask her question, and reading from her notes held in trembling, nervous hands, started to ask my president, “Good morning, Mister President, my question today is...”

At which point Obama interrupted her with ”WELL, IT'S AFTERNOON...”. The young lady immediately lost face and was made to look stupid for not having perfect command of greetings in the English language. Yes, it was 4:30 PM, and Obama's quip immediately got a little round of guffaws from the crowd, most of whom were probably feeling what I was feeling and certainly anyone from Asia was squirming in discomfort. Why did he humiliate that poor young woman so? Why did he point out her little error when he didn't need to? Um, English isn't the first language of Myanmar. People here on this entire continent have a much greater sense of public humiliation; even as an English teacher, you have to excuse little mistakes in speech and not jump on them like that, particularly when the whole world is watching. I was more embarrassed for my president for acting so uncouth than I felt embarrassed for the young lady.

C'mon, Obama. Asian discourse 101. That said, that young woman will probably remember that moment as both her proudest (being able to ask the POTUS a question), and most humiliating moment of her life.

When the Q&A's were over (you can see the whole thing on YouTube here), Obama, tired and worn out after crossing the Pacific and participating in innumerable summits and talks, and getting ready for this evening's flight to Australia, spent a good 20 minutes wandering around the crowd shaking hands and conversing individually. I only know this because Myanmar TV captured every second of every minute Obama was to be seen. Now, if this were a campaign event and Obama was out to court votes and enthusiasm, I'd understand it, but this wasn't. He was in Burma, fer crissakes. Still, he shook everyone's hands. He let himself be part of dozens of selfies with significant background.

No, my president wasn't perfect on his visit to Myanmar, but he was who he was. I still like the guy. 

Now, what about that important thing I was doing today?  That'll have to wait until the next blog.  

Instead, as usual, I'm gonna conclude with a video of me playing the ukulele.


  1. Yea, you would think The President would have been given a lil tutoring on local culture.

  2. Replies
    1. Just so you know, I posted a link to your today's blog page on my Facebook timeline. Hopefully, many others will enjoy it!

    2. Oops, I should have mentioned that I don't agree with your opinion about your president, but I do enjoy your fun and music! Blessings...

  3. Enjoying your blog! I'll have to do something analogous in the near future, because home is where the money ain't. Funny thing is, I was teaching English in Taiwan over 25 years ago, before that became a widely known work possibility - and that predated most of the formal certification "stuff" that has come along since.

    Strangely enough, I never received nearly the hourly wage in America that I pulled down on average in that field (without a college degree then), and I received far more job training teaching English (10 hours) than I have in anything I've done in America - and I now have an M.S. degree with extensive engineering education. Go figure.

    That said, I think Obama showed himself for the mean-spirited, uninformed, insensitive individual he really is. So much for his lauded cultural sensitivity! Anyway, despite your support for the sitting POTUS, at least you're able to see that side of him and tell the truth about it - in America most of the media consistently overlooks his shortcomings.


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