Yesterday, the streets of Rangoon were lined with huge crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers, holding signs welcoming President Obama as his motorcade sped to the last stop – Rangoon University – for a major speech. The excitement, building here since the trip was announced, was now electric.
Even just a few months ago, this visit was likely unimaginable to the people of Burma. In the President’s speech to a spellbound audience at the University’s historic Convocation Hall, he said, “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist… so today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”
It was also unimaginable to me that I’d be standing by a U.S. President as he dedicated a USAID mission, a first time in the Agency’s history. It’s been over 50 years since the inaugural U.S.-Burma Economic Cooperation Agreement was signed. In the decades that followed, our two countries have shared a long and, at times, tumultuous history. Yet, President Obama began a new chapter when he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma, highlighting the country’s historic shift to democracy and the partnership of the United States in this effort.
Burma is in the process of a remarkable transition, moving from military, authoritarian rule to parliamentary democracy; negotiating ceasefires after decades-long conflicts; and shifting to a market-oriented economy. And, as President Obama said, this remarkable journey has only just begun.
Yet, what an incredible start. As a Foreign Service Officer for 23 years, I can tell you that helping countries chart a more prosperous future is not always easy. We know there is hard work ahead, but yesterday we got a huge lift. That momentum will only strengthen the optimism and resilience of the Burmese people. I’ve never been prouder than when the President said to those listening all across Burma, “America is with you every step of the way.”