Mr Obama goes to Myanmar

Later today the world will be transfixed, briefly, by President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar. The big news is that he will meet President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on their home turf. Naturally the photo of the day for 19 November 2012 will be the two Nobel Peace Laureates: iconic auras synchronised, and smiling. Standing together.

President Obama will also make a speech at the University of Yangon. This article helps to summarise the significance of the location, while this one strikes a cautious note about the visit overall.

Notwithstanding such lingering hesitation, during the President’s few hours on-the-ground I expect that enthusiasm about Myanmar’s reformist juggernaut will reach hitherto unseen peaks. The Myanmar authorities recognise the significance of the first trip to their country by a serving United States President. They recall the dark years when the arrival of Air Force One was unimaginable.

Long shunned by the world’s democracies, the visit of such a towering and historic figure, fresh from his own electoral triumph, will give them extra confidence that the risks of the reforms have been well worthwhile.

For President Obama the journey to Myanmar is a deeply symbolic one too. The fact that he received Myanmar government support to address an audience at the University of Yangon is key. After decades as a locus for political strife, the campus is still largely off-limits: a dented shell, rotting, tragic. In the old days I recall being gently shooed away from its vicinity, and I am yet, I must confess, to step foot on its contested ground.

Elsewhere in the country I have spent time at a number of Universities, Colleges and the like. They are almost all in various states of decrepitude: hollowed out by dictatorial assessments of the uniquely destabilising potential of youth.

My guess is that at the University today President Obama will use the podium to offer his special support to those who want to re-build Myanmar’s education system. Naturally he will also endorse those who seek to reform other facets of national life. He will then probably sound a note of warning about the need to build real peace with ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. But his big message, if his speech writers have got the tone right, will be addressed to Myanmar’s rising generations.

If Myanmar is to be a happier, wealthier and more inclusive society then the old generals will need to continue to surrender power and control. Who will replace them? With the results of the April 2012 by-election still reverberating, the Myanmar people seem convinced that the next government should be headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. But then who?

In the excitement, we should not forget that it will be the young people in the audience and on the streets who will ultimately determine the country’s destiny. Will their elders give them the chances they so clearly deserve?