President Obama did something that no sitting United States president has ever done: visited the country of Myanmar (also known as Burma). In recent years, Myanmar went from total isolation to opening its borders in a limited way. Obama chose a symbolic location for his speech: Yangon, a center of opposition activity, instead of the capital in Naypyitaw. Obama made headlines by referring to the country as “Myanmar” instead of “Burma.” Myanmar is the name the country gave itself twenty years ago, but the United States and others still referred to it as Burma, in a stark acknowledgment of the oppression visited on the country’s citizens by the Burmese government. Obama’s use of the word Myanmar was a diplomatic move to show that the country has achieved a certain level of legitimacy with the international community. In his speech the U.S. President trumpeted the values of democracy and diversity, and he praised the opening of Myanmar’s borders.
Citizens in nearby Laos and Thailand view Myanmar as a window to the past. Transport by boat and animal has not been replaced by cars and motorbikes the way it has for many of Myanmar’s more open neighbors. Even with its historic step, Myanmar’s opening has been tentative. Tourists are closely watched, and the government routinely spies on them to track their activity. No one may take more than a day trip away from the hotel at which they are staying, and certain regions are still closed off.
President Obama also visited Thailand and Cambodia on this trip. His meeting in Cambodia was tense, as he called for better human rights and the release of political prisoners. These steps, he said, would provide the first step toward better relations and trade agreements between the United States and Cambodia.