Monday, November 19, 2012

Obama in Yangon

President Obama with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Yangon today. Photo Credit: The Malaysian Insider


I live in a country where politics are making international news on a daily basis; yet, I do not want to discuss politics on my blog. In fact, I will delete comments that are political.

Despite my I will avoid politics on my blog rule, I can’t NOT write about the fact that President Obama spent six hours in Yangon today.  This was a historical event. It is the first time an American president, while in office, has been to Myanmar.  The last president to visit was Richard Nixon after his term was cut short. For more information on the history of US presidents visiting Myanmar, check out Myanmar Times online here.

I have no idea how long people have truly been preparing behind the scenes for Obama’s visit to Myanmar, but I do know the US Embassy staff have been working their bums off for weeks.  Obama announced that he would visit this country just after the United States learned he was re-elected for a second term. 

The city has been buzzing. It started when all us Yangonites saw "Welcome Obama" graffiti signs all over town. A few of them were sadly defaced; but the most famous one seen here, ended up being guarded by police.  Even better, the graffiti artist, Arker Kyaw, was invited to meet President Obama!! Brilliant!

Photo Credit: Associated Press. France 24

I really began to notice all the sizzling energy on Friday. My local hang-out, Coffee Circles, was teeming with people who were clearly not tourists and clearly not resident expats. Camera gear – expensive camera gear – and people with their noses firmly placed in front of laptops took over the joint. Coffee Circles is generally busy at lunch, but these journalists were so focused getting stories ready, they didn’t seem to realize that the large table they were using to hold all their gear was taking up precious seating for all us regular people.

Yes, it was slightly annoying since my co-worker and I were holding our regular meetings there (I swear we need a table reserved full-time for the gig we’re working on. Coffee Circles is basically our office space!).  We needed chairs and tables that were being taken-up by all the big Cannons with the great-big lenses.  Still, the annoyance was minimal. Mostly, I felt a sense of awe and wonder.

I was curious to know what stories they were spinning from the ground. It was odd to see our local haunt as the hub for journalists and their energy was infectious. And that felt pretty cool. I couldn’t help but feel very privileged that we’re living here during such a historical period in this country.  We get to watch, from the far-sidelines, changes on a daily basis. It’s a very interesting time.

Besides Coffee Circles being the new local hang-out for fast-paced journalists, there were significant traffic changes that added to the whole Obama Fever episodes. Since we moved to Yangon this spring, weekly (yes, weekly: no exaggeration here) the amount of traffic and cars has increased. But I’m not talking about that kind of traffic.

On Friday, there were what seemed like hundreds of police officers in crisp, white uniforms patrolling the main road from the airport, Pyay Road. Some of them even donned lovely white, fitted gloves. (God, that must've been hot because it's super hot still!)  I live off Pyay Road, so it was obvious how many officers were standing guard.  Someone told me Obama actually arrived early, but that was a miscommunication.

The police were preparing. Practicing. On Saturday, they did a trial motorcade run. It wasn’t readily announced what Obama’s schedule would be, yet, but we knew he’d end up talking at the University at some point.

On Sunday, we drove past a section of Inya Road where I noticed two extremely large generators on top of each other. They weren’t there on Saturday. I said, “Ah! THAT’S where Obama will be!” He’d need the generators and it made me laugh that I could now notice important upcoming events by the number of generators that take up half a street.

This morning, we left our home early to take F to school school so we'd miss Pyay Rd closing down for an hour; but the roads were quiet. There weren’t many rambling, black exhaust spewing buses.  There weren’t many locals standing on the side of the road waiting for the buses, either.  It was odd, a little eerie, but also invigorating because I knew what it meant: everyone was preparing.

Photo Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images, seen on CNN post here.

Sadly, I did not see Obama or his motorcade today. (I know. Total bummer.)  My six year old daughter and husband did, though. Just by chance. A friend of mine, P, saw his motorcade as well and even got a wave from him! One of my husband’s colleague’s baby was held and kissed by Obama.  There were other children present (maybe Embassy staff children?). I heard he shook their hands and gave them autographs.

I’m not sure what all this will really mean for the country and I’m not here to speculate about that. I’m not a political analyst.

I hope that Obama felt welcomed in this beautiful country.  I can't imagine that he did not. 

I am just grateful for the opportunity to have had a small seat in the bleachers on such a historical day.

Just a note: though I totally love comments, it is of utmost importance to me that I am respectful of the country where I live and am sensitive to the fact that I am not at all qualified to talk about politics here.  I will not and do not use this blog to promote any political agenda whatsoever. Feel free to leave comments, but if they are of political nature, I will delete them. Thank you for understanding.


20 comments:

  1. Love your post and thanks for sharing the photos, Becky! It's an historic moment made all the more interesting through the expat perspective.

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    1. Thanks, Sara!! :) I wish I had a little more insight and a little more to say about it all, but it has been a fascinating few days!

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  2. Interesting to see the preparation for his arrival. All interesting stuff...as always, thanks for sharing your corner of the world!

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    1. Thanks, June!! :-) Thanks always for your lovely comments!

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  3. Thank you for the insight of the president Obama visit. The excitement are felt throughout among the burmese community here too in malaysia:)

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    1. Hi Caroline,
      How exciting that all that Obama buzz was felt in Malaysia, too. :)

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  4. Thank you for the insight of the president Obama visit. The excitement are felt throughout among the burmese community here too in malaysia:)

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  5. What an interesting life you have! (You may find this hard to believe, but you are the only friend I have that lives in Myanmar :-) ) I love hearing about events from your perspective.

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    1. Janice, you made me laugh. lol

      I'm glad you enjoy hearing about life here. :-)

      Thanks for your comment!

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  6. I love hearing news from other countries, since it can give you a different perspective. Hopefully, your adopted country will benefit in a positive way from his visit; one can hope. :)

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  7. I read this the other day and I meant to comment but I was laid low... Any way it's so interesting reading the perspective that isn't in the papers, the small details of everyday life. I love it!

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  8. Beautifully shared about Obama's visit to your country Becky. I love how you noticed the large generators and how you figured it all out from there. Too funny.

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    1. Hi Suzanne,
      Thank you for your kind words. I know...the generators thing cracks me up, too!

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  9. Becky, the reason that you did not see many "black exhaust spewing buses" is that they virtually disappeared from Yangon streets more than 6 years ago when city buses were converted to burn CNG instead of diesel. Actually any vehicle spewing black exhaust fumes is a rare occurrence anymore because the traffic police fine the drivers. Are you sure you are paying attention?

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    1. Hi Volunteer Bill,
      Very interesting. I think it's great that there are fines for the black exhaust. I wasn't aware of this, but there is much I'm not aware of in Myanmar.

      Though there certainly are not many vehicles with black exhaust "spewing" out as, say, Nairobi or Addis Ababa when I lived in those places (in Addis some years ago, you'd blow black snot out your nose), there certainly are vehicles with this black exhaust. Yesterday, after reading your comment, I counted no fewer than eight vehicles (mostly trucks, not buses) between 9 mile and Parami Road.

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    2. Some trucks, yes. Few compared with several years ago. Even fewer private cars. No buses unless you saw some of the few government buses used for helping Yangon municipal employees to get to their offices.

      I haven't seen a military truck in Yangon for several years. But if some are around, the could also be belching.

      If you think pollution along Yangon roads is bad, you have no concept of the way it was before buses and taxis were converted to CNG. Probably much like you describe in Nairobi or Addis Ababa.

      If you consider noise "pollution," then you would not been able to survive in Yangon 10 years ago when every vehicle was honking at everything nearby all of the time. Ending that nonsense is among the accomplishments of the previous government.

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  10. Thanks for sharing these photos and your experience, Becky.

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