Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi meet in Burma

President Obama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Obama greeted Aung Sang San Suu Kyi during a stop at her private residence in Rangoon, Burma. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech earlier this year, she reflected on the importance of kindness in the international human community: “To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people.” via Religion and Ethics News Weekly.  [Official White House Photo by Pete Souza] For more great photos, the Washington Post has a great slideshow here.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were in Burma (Myanmar) recently. This marked the first ever visit by a US President to the long-time “pariah” state of Burma.

His full, 34-minute speech at the University of Yangon is available here (or click here for a 5-minute highlight clip):

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 The speech is in many ways a basic civics lesson. He quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (1941):

  1. Freedom of Speech
  2. Freedom of Worship
  3. Freedom from Want, and
  4. Freedom from Fear

Burma’s history is, sadly, one of a great deal of lack of freedom. The country is extremely diverse (see this ethnicity map) and its various ethnic groups have historically only seen peace at the expense of one group conquering its neighbors. The recent violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the western part of Burma received much attention recently, but tensions and bloodshed there are (at least) as old as the country itself. This week Danny Fisher wrote an excellent article about this, An Opportunity for Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama…and You. Equally long and often more-bloody conflicts have raged on with the Karen, 15% of whom are Christians, as well as Shan and Kachin ethnic groups, both predominantly Buddhist.

It is heartening to see Aung San Suu Kyi free from her many years of house arrest and, even more so, to see her as an elected member of the parliament there and free at last to travel the world raising awareness about her country’s many issues. It is also good to see that the nation has a civilian President, Thein Sein, even though he is a former military commander and has close ties to the long-ruling junta.

But the country has a very long way to go. It was feared in the 1950s that democracy would only bring ethnic violence in the country, and that is what it did, giving the junta ‘just cause’ to lay down an iron-fisted rule that has lasted until recently. If the nation again slips into widespread ethnic violence, then democracy itself will likely be lost.

In terms of concrete moves by President Obama, $170 million has been pledged through USAID to help cultivate that democracy and secure peace in the country (a process that will by no means be easy).

The visit was not without its critics, however. the US Campaign for Burma director, Jennifer Quigley, stated, “The issue is the message it sends to those who have not been part of the reform agenda. This is basically telling them [the military] that they can do what they want because sanctions will still be lifted and there will be no repercussions for further repression.”

Concerning the many minority groups, she stated that, “The conditions on the ground are still very bad and the many feel repressed and see all these changes being touted by the government as extremely fragile. They see this as a superficial peace process” (via pbs). You can support the US Campaign for Burma here, or join them on facebook here.

Last week, the NYTimes featured an op-ed by Bill Richardsonformer U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy and governor of New Mexico and Mickey Bergman, senior adviser to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and executive director of the Aspen Institute Global Alliances Program, noting that, among the many difficulties ahead for Burma, “the government lacks basic capacity and knowledge on how to govern properly. Following decades of dictatorship, members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches have limited ability to provide adequate services to their constituents.”

While there is much reason for hope and optimism, let us not forget these sober assessments. Meanwhile perhaps keep in mind this very old Buddhist teaching:

Just as water cools both good and bad,
And washes away all impurity and dust,
In the same way you should develop thoughts of love
To friend and foe alike,
And having reached perfection in love,
You will attain enlightenment.

– Jataka Atthakatha. I,24

“yathāpi udakaṃ nāma, kalyāṇe pāpake jane.
samaṃ pharati sītena, pavāheti rajomalaṃ.
tatheva tvampi ahitahite, samaṃ mettāya bhāvaya.
mettāpāramitaṃ gantvā, sambodhiṃ pāpuṇissasī” ti.

(via http://pali.sirimangalo.org/ – daily Buddha Vacana for Thursday, November 22, 2012)


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