US President Barack Obama has used a historic speech in Burma to urge an end to sectarian unrest in the western state of Rakhine, saying there was “no excuse for violence against innocent people”.
“National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country’s future, it is necessary to stop the incitement and to stop violence,” he said on Monday.
Two major outbreaks of violence since June between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in the state have killed 180 people and displaced more than 110,000. Downtown Rangoon came to a near halt during Obama’s visit.
Crowds flooded the streets, workers left their jobs and a nurse even snuck out of the hospital to see Obama, the first US president to visit the Asian nation.
Among the crowd were hundreds of students wearing matching school uniforms of white shirts and dark green sarongs.
Many of those on the streets waved American flags and some held homemade signs welcoming Obama. In a country where people are often forced by the authorities into mass demonstrations, the spontaneous outpouring of support was striking.
Ma Than Than Win, 42, wore an Obama T-shirt and held a banner with a picture of Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist who welcomed Obama to the home where she once was held under house arrest by the country’s ruling military regime.
“We have never had the visit of a president from a big country like America. I came here because we believe that President Obama will be a big strength for Burma’s democratic reforms as he is a world-recognised leader for democracy,” said Win, an office worker.
During their meeting, Obama and President Thein Sein sat side by side in large padded chairs, with the US and Burma flags behind them.
Thein Sein spoke first, saying through a translator that the relationship between their countries “has been progressing” and he looked forward to it strengthening in the coming years.
He said he and Obama spoke about the need to continue promoting democracy and human rights. He also said Burma would continue to co-operate with the United States on those efforts.
Thein Sein expressed “our sincere appreciation for President Obama’s vision and support”. After the meeting, Obama made an unscheduled stop at the nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most revered sites in Burma.
With their shoes and socks off, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked up the pagoda’s steep steps. Obama took part in a ritual often carried out at the pagoda – saying a blessing at a section of the pagoda platform that recognises the day of Obama’s birth, Friday.
Obama poured 11 cups of water into a basin, turning to reporters to explain that he was dousing “the flames” of anger, hatred and other vices.
Suu Kyi welcomed Obama to her home for a meeting. Now a member of Parliament, Suu Kyi lives in a gated residence with razor wire along the top of the compound’s walls.
The house is a light-grey structure with a red-tiled roof.
The lawn is ringed with roses. The house has been renovated since Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in late 2010, with a new roof and freshly painted walls.
Obama thanked her for her “extraordinary hospitality and grace” and the power of her example, which he said “has been inspiration to people all around the world, including myself. Suu Kyi cautioned against too much optimism over the country’s progress.
“We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success,” Suu Kyi said after meeting Obama at her home in Rangoon.