Shelby: It is a historic visit for a country that has been isolated for decades. When President Obama arrived here in Myanmar, also known as Burma, he became the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit the country.
President Obama is speaking right here at Yangon University. What does that mean to the people here?
Resident: I think it is a very good thing for us!
Shelby: Even though the president received a warm welcome from the people here, Mr. Obama has not always had kind words for Myanmar.
President Obama: There are elections that are being held right now in Burma that will be anything but free and fair.
Shelby: For nearly five decades, Myanmar was ruled by a military group called a junta. The U.S. government didn’t recognize the junta, which is why the U.S. still refers to the country by its former name of Burma. And for years, the U.S. has imposed sanctions, or economic punishments, on the country because of its harsh treatment of its people.
Once colonized by Britain, the nation of Burma gained independence in 1948 and established a democratic government.
Then in 1962, the military rose up and overthrew the government. They took control of the economy, completely isolated the country and cracked down on anyone who spoke out against the new leadership.
In 1988, thousands were killed in anti-government protests, and shortly after, the junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.
The military leaders also imprisoned thousands of people, including Aung Sung Suu Kyi, an activist who had been promoting democracy and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
While under house arrest, Suu Kyi encouraged her supporters to push for democracy.
And though the military continued its brutal rule, even killing Buddhist monks during peaceful protests, they couldn’t kill the hunger for freedom.
In 2007, here on this very street, peaceful protesters were shot and killed for speaking out against the government. And a Japanese journalist was also killed for filming the event. But today, just five years later, people have gained greater freedom of speech. And journalists, like myself, are allowed here in the country to file reports.
In 2010, after decades of protests, a new president was elected – U Thein Sein. Many in the international community said the election was not fair. But it still marked a move away from military rule.
Resident: The people in our country, they do not want to live under the iron fist. They want to move forward. We all want to keep up with the rest of the world.
Shelby: Just one year later, the military junta was officially dissolved. And even though the old military leaders still have a lot of influence, the new civilian government has started moving Myanmar toward democracy.
What changes have you noticed here in your country in the past year or two?
Resident: For me, the most important thing is freedom of speech.
Resident: I’ve never talked to a reporter in the past. I feel safe talking to a reporter now, yeah.
Shelby: Freedoms of speech and press have opened up. Opposition political parties have been allowed to legally register for the first time. And hundreds of political prisoners, who were jailed for speaking out against the government, have been freed, including Aung Sung Suu Kyi.
This past spring, Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament.
Aung Aung Kyaw is a member of a student union that promotes democracy. He was imprisoned for three years because he spoke out against the government, because it did not allow aid in after a deadly cyclone struck in 2008.
Aung Aung Kyaw: I was involved in rescuing the dead bodies, and their trouble was huge. So I just said what I witnessed.
Shelby: Do you regret going to prison?
Aung Aung Kyaw: No, no, no, no.
Shelby: Why is democracy worth fighting for?
Aung Aung Kyaw: My understanding is that democracy is the recognition of the human being – the dignity of the human being. If we have this value, this recognition, I think the years I spent in prison were worth it.
Shelby: Just a few years ago, a visit from the U.S. president would have been unthinkable. But because of Myanmar’s progress, the U.S. has now said it will appoint an ambassador, increase foreign aid and open up some trade with the country after a nearly decade-long ban.
Aung Aung Kyaw: Right now, we have a visit from Obama and this is a positive sign. And the release of former political prisoners, I think it is a step in the right direction.
Shelby: Activists have criticized President Obama for what they see is rewarding Myanmar, even though about 300 political prisoners are still behind bars and clashes between different ethnic groups in parts of the country have left nearly a hundred dead in just the last two weeks.
But the president was quick to say Myanmar still has more work to do, especially when it comes to protecting human rights.
President Obama: One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made, but also to give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future.
Shelby: Many here say that while the country still has a long way to go, they hope President Obama’s visit will encourage further steps toward democracy.
What do you hope to see for the young people of this country?
Resident: Luckily, I’m quite young, so I want to have a brighter future ahead. I want to preserve the safety in leaders, in career, for safety in everything. I think democracy can give us what we are hoping for.
Shelby: Shelby Holliday, Channel One News.