US President Barack Obama inspired and exhilarated some 300 youths and students at Rangoon University on Friday, urging them to take the lead in areas such as business, education and climate change while calling on them to speak out against religious intolerance.
Speaking on his final engagement on a whirlwind two-day visit to Burma that has taken in an ASEAN conference, a meeting with Burmese MPs, and one-to-one talks with both Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama conducted a town hall meeting with representatives of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Institute.
He opened with a brief speech in which he told the youngsters that their generation has the greatest opportunity of all to improve society.
To the delight of his star-struck audience, Obama tried out a few rehearsed phrases in Burmese language, most notably: tat naing phyar yout, which loosely translates as “you must be strongly committed to succeed”.
Offering the floor for students’ questions, Obama was immediately asked what young people in Burma could do to promote tolerance and eradicate extremism.
He responded by alluding to religious intolerance in Syria and Northern Ireland, and the US’ own tainted record of racism.
He called on young people to respect the views of others and to “speak out against intolerance” when they witness it in their daily lives.
In what was perhaps a slight against the current generation of leaders in Southeast Asia, Obama said, “I think that the leaders of ASEAN countries don’t like to criticise each other because they think it is not respectful”. He said that such criticism was “constructive” and called on the audience, which included a smattering of students from other Southeast Asian nations, to embrace diversity, assuring them that integration among the bloc is “inevitable”.
Asked what he would do if he were “president of Myanmar”, Obama joked that he was mostly popular abroad while back home he was the target of complaints.
Responding to the question, he emphasised Burma’s commitment to elections in 2015, constitutional reform, and laying laws in place to protect the press, and the freedoms of expression and to organise.
After an hour of fielding questions, the US head of state bowed out to rapturous applause and screams of excitement when shaking hands and posing for photos with students.
“He was fantastic. Amazing,” said Cracy Than, a 23-year-old Muslim woman from Pegu.
“I am so excited,” said Nan Lao Kkam, 25, who studies at the local American Center. “I am so proud to have met him. He is my idol.”
Obama now moves on to Australia for a G-20 summit where he will be hosted by Tony Abbot, a co-participant in the ASEAN and East Asian summits in the Burmese capital this week, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin who sat with his American counterpart at two-day APEC conference in Beijing immediately prior to the ASEAN summit.