Myanmar welcomes Obama with graffiti

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by Errika Kinetz
Associated Press Writer

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — When Arker Kyaw heard President Barack Obama was coming to Myanmar, he gathered 15 cans of spray paint and headed for a blank brick wall under cover of darkness. Kyaw, whose passion is graffiti, labored from 3 a.m. until the sun came up. Passing taxi drivers and the occasional pedestrian gave him signs of encouragement as Obama’s grinning, uplifted face took shape against a background of the American and Myanmar flags.

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GRAFITTI WELCOME–A woman takes a photo of a wall painting created by Myanmar graffiti artist Arker Kyaw welcoming U.S. President Barack Obama in Yangon, on Nov. 17. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

“I wanted to welcome him,” said Kyaw, a 19-year-old with a sweep of styled hair and a penchant for skinny jeans.

The next day, someone — a rival graffiti artist, suspects Kyaw — scribbled over his handiwork with a can of black spray paint.

Before dawn Saturday, as he watched for cops between tea breaks, he painted another wall with an image of Obama scrawled with the words “hello again.” He sees it as a shout out from the youth of Myanmar, and hopes Obama will glimpse it during his six-hour visit to the country, the first by a U.S. president.

Word of Obama’s historic visit spread quickly around Yangon, which was readying itself with legions of hunched workers painting fences and curbs, pulling weeds and scraping grime off old buildings in anticipation of the president’s Monday arrival.

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OPPOSITION LEADER–U.S. President Barack Obama walks out with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after addressing members of the media at Suu Kyi’s residence in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 19, 2012. Obama who touched down Monday morning, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Asian nation also known as Burma, said his historic visit to Myanmar marks the next step in a new chapter between the two countries. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Many hope that Myanmar’s emerging friendship with the West will improve human rights in the country and help counterbalance the influence of neighboring China.

“I think America can work for the people. China only works for the government,” said Wizaya, a 47-year-old monk from Mandalay who goes by one name. “This is our expectation, that they will help us. Whether they help us depends on them.”

Among the many hungers in Myanmar is a desire for better stuff. One of the first things Paul Myathein, a 63-year-old English teacher, noticed after the military seized power in 1962 was a quick decline in the quality of toothpaste and soap. Many hope that warming ties with America will mean more and better things to buy.

War War, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she’d really like to buy a car, a bed and a pillow from America.

“The products from America are better than the ones from China,” she said. “Most American products are expensive. We can’t afford to buy them.”

For Myathein, the English teacher, Obama’s visit is, he said, “a dream only.”

In 1963, Myathein became a member of the American Center, a cultural outpost of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon with a well-stocked lending library, a popular book club and English-language classes. Gatherings of more than five people were once banned in Myanmar and during those years, the American Center was one of few safe places for public debate.

Myathein took refuge there, burying himself in books of English grammar and George Orwell novels.

He holds up American culture as a model of something he tasted in childhood, which was ground out of his society during half a century of military dictatorship — a drive to question, the boldness to say no, the space to speak freely, take initiative and connect with the world at large. Myanmar is changing many political and economic policies, but for Myathein the more important, deeper transformation has yet to take place.

“Superficially, you think it’s quite OK, but if you penetrate deeper, you see the same thing. Everyone is the same. We don’t want to raise questions,” he said. “One thing I would like to say to Obama is give us a chance. Teach us to open up our mindset.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also traveling to Thailand where she was going to join Obama. Clinton then was to fly to Myanmar with Obama on Air Force One. It will be the last joint trip for the president and his secretary of state, the once presidential rival who went on to become Obama’s peripatetic chief diplomat. Clinton is planning on leaving the administration.

In Myanmar, Obama addressed a national audience from the University of Yangon, offering a “hand of friendship” and a lasting U.S. commitment, yet a warning, too. He said the new civilian government must nurture democracy or watch it, and U.S. support, disappear.

Obama celebrated the history of what he was witnessing in Myanmar — a nation shedding years of military rule, and a relationship between two nations changing fast.

“This remarkable journey has just begun,” he said.

In a notable detour from U.S. policy, the president referred to the nation as Myanmar in his talks with President Thein Sein. That is the name preferred by the former military regime and the new government, rather than Burma, the old name favored by democracy advocates and the U.S. government.

On his first trip abroad since his re-election earlier this month, Obama’s motorcade sped him to the lakeside home in Yangon of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He hugged her and lauded her as a personal inspiration. Suu Kyi spent most of the past 20 years in house detention at her home.

In remarks after their meeting, Suu Kyi echoed Obama’s tone with an admonition of her own, one that could have been directed at her own ruling party as much as to the United States:

“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she said. “Then we have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”

Rhodes said Obama was moved the visit with Suu Kyi at her home, and was pleased to see on prominent display a stuffed replica of the president’s dog Bo in the house. Obama gave Suu Kyi the stuffed animal when she visited Washington earlier this year.

Crowds swelled at every intersection in Yangon, yelling affectionately for both Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“You are the legend hero of our world,” one banner read.

Obama spoke at a university that was once the center of government opposition, and his message was as much a call for Myanmar to continue in its promising steps as it was a tribute to democracy in general. He held up the United States as an example of its triumph and its imperfections.

Coinciding with the president’s visit, the government of Myanmar announced further human rights steps to review prisoner cases and de-escalate conflicts in ethnic regions of the country.

But Obama urged even more, calling for a government where, as he put it, “those in power must accept constraints.”

“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished,” Obama said in the address televised to the nation.

Rhodes said the president was moved by the throngs of people who lined the streets to greet him. The president made one unscheduled stop, at the Shwedagon Pagoda. After seeing the pagoda as Air Force One approached Yangon, then seeing the outpouring of support from people who worship the site, Obama personally decided to make the unscheduled stop, Rhodes said.

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