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Remarks by President Obama at the University of Yangon

U.S.
President Barack Obama waves after delivering a speech at University
of Yangon’s convocation hall in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, Nov 19,
2012. (GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP Photo)

PRESIDENT
OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Myanmar Naingan,
Mingalaba!  (Laughter and applause.)  I am very honored to
be here at this university and to be the first President of the
United States of America to visit your country. 

I
came here because of the importance of your country.  You live
at the crossroads of East and South Asia.  You border the most
populated nations on the planet.  You have a history that
reaches back thousands of years, and the ability to help determine
the destiny of the fastest growing region of the world.

I
came here because of the beauty and diversity of your country. 
I have seen just earlier today the golden stupa of Shwedagon, and
have been moved by the timeless idea of metta — the belief that our
time on this Earth can be defined by tolerance and by love.  And
I know this land reaches from the crowded neighborhoods of this old
city to the homes of more than 60,000 villages; from the peaks of the
Himalayas, the forests of Karen State, to the banks of the Irrawady
River.

I
came here because of my respect for this university.  It was
here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took
hold.  It was here that Aung San edited a magazine before
leading an independence movement.  It was here that U Thant
learned the ways of the world before guiding it at the United
Nations.  Here, scholarship thrived during the last century and
students demanded their basic human rights.  Now, your
Parliament has at last passed a resolution to revitalize this
university and it must reclaim its greatness, because the future of
this country will be determined by the education of its youth.
I
came here because of the history between our two countries.  A
century ago, American traders, merchants and missionaries came here
to build bonds of faith and commerce and friendship.  And from
within these borders in World War II, our pilots flew into China and
many of our troops gave their lives.  Both of our nations
emerged from the British Empire, and the United States was among the
first countries to recognize an independent Union of Burma.  We
were proud to found an American Center in Rangoon and to build
exchanges with schools like this one.  And through decades of
differences, Americans have been united in their affection for this
country and its people.

Above all, I came here because
of America’s belief in human dignity.  Over the last several
decades, our two countries became strangers.  But today, I can
tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this
country, about you.  You gave us hope and we bore witness to
your courage.

We
saw the activists dressed in white visit the families of political
prisoners on Sundays and monks dressed in saffron protesting
peacefully in the streets.  We learned of ordinary people who
organized relief teams to respond to a cyclone, and heard the voices
of students and the beats of hip-hop artists projecting the sound of
freedom.  We came to know exiles and refugees who never lost
touch with their families or their ancestral home.  And we were
inspired by the fierce dignity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as she proved
that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your
heart.
When
I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who
ruled by fear.  I said, in my inauguration address, “We will
extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  And
over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a
dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.  Under
President Thein Sein, the desire for change has been met by an agenda
for reform.  A civilian now leads the government, and a
parliament is asserting itself.  The once-outlawed National
League for Democracy stood in an election, and Aung San Suu Kyi is a
Member of Parliament.  Hundreds of prisoners of conscience have
been released, and forced labor has been banned.  Preliminary
cease-fires have been reached with ethnic armies, and new laws allow
for a more open economy.
So
today, I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of
friendship.  America now has an Ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions
have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer
opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the
world.  But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much
further to go.  Reforms launched from the top of society must
meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation.  The
flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished —
they must be strengthened; they must become a shining North Star for
all this nation’s people.
And
your success in that effort is important to the United States, as
well as to me.  Even though we come from different places, we
share common dreams:  to choose our leaders; to live together in
peace; to get an education and make a good living; to love our
families and our communities.  That’s why freedom is not an
abstract idea; freedom is the very thing that makes human progress
possible — not just at the ballot box, but in our daily lives.
One
of our greatest Presidents in the United States, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, understood this truth.  He defined America’s cause
as more than the right to cast a ballot.  He understood
democracy was not just voting.  He called upon the world to
embrace four fundamental freedoms:  freedom of speech, freedom
of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  These
four freedoms reinforce one another, and you cannot fully realize one
without realizing them all. 
So
that’s the future that we seek for ourselves, and for all people. 
And that is what I want to speak to you about today.
First,
we believe in the right of free expression so that the voices of
ordinary people can be heard, and governments reflect their will —
the people’s will. 
In
the United States, for more than two centuries, we have worked to
keep this promise for all of our citizens — to win freedom for those
who were enslaved; to extend the right to vote for women and African
Americans; to protect the rights of workers to organize. 
And
we recognize no two nations achieve these rights in exactly the same
way, but there is no question that your country will be stronger if
it draws on the strength of all of its people.  That’s what
allows nations to succeed.  That’s what reform has begun to
do. 
Instead
of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now
be fully respected.  Instead of being stifled, the veil of media
censorship must continue to be lifted.  And as you take these
steps, you can draw on your progress.  Instead of being ignored,
citizens who protested the construction of the Myitsone dam were
heard.  Instead of being outlawed, political parties have been
allowed to participate.  You can see progress being made. 
As one voter said during the parliamentary elections here, “Our
parents and grandparents waited for this, but never saw it.” 
And now you can see it.  You can taste freedom.
And
to protect the freedom of all the voters, those in power must accept
constraints.  That’s what our American system is designed to
do.  Now, America may have the strongest military in the world,
but it must submit to civilian control.  I, as the President of
the United States, make determinations that the military then carries
out, not the other way around.  As President and
Commander-In-Chief, I have that responsibility because I’m
accountable to the people. 
Now,
on other hand, as President, I cannot just impose my will on Congress
— the Congress of the United States — even though sometimes I wish
I could.  The legislative branch has its own powers and its own
prerogatives, and so they check my power and balance my power. 
I appoint some of our judges, but I cannot tell them how to rule,
because every person in America — from a child living in poverty to
me, the President of the United States — is equal under the law. 
And a judge can make a determination as to whether or not I am
upholding the law or breaking the law.  And I am fully
accountable to that law. 
And
I describe our system in the United States because that’s how you
must reach for the future that you deserve — a future where a single
prisoner of conscience is one too many.  You need to reach for a
future where the law is stronger than any single leader, because it’s
accountable to the people.  You need to reach for a future where
no child is made to be a soldier and no woman is exploited, and where
the laws protect them even if they’re vulnerable, even if they’re
weak; a future where national security is strengthened by a military
that serves under civilians and a Constitution that guarantees that
only those who are elected by the people may govern. 
On
that journey, America will support you every step of the way — by
using our assistance to empower civil society; by engaging your
military to promote professionalism and human rights; and by
partnering with you as you connect your progress towards democracy
with economic development.  So advancing that journey will help
you pursue a second freedom — the belief that all people should be
free from want.
It’s
not enough to trade a prison of powerlessness for the pain of an
empty stomach.  But history shows that governments of the people
and by the people and for the people are far more powerful in
delivering prosperity.  And that’s the partnership we seek with
you.
When
ordinary people have a say in their own future, then your land can’t
just be taken away from you.  And that’s why reforms must ensure
that the people of this nation can have that most fundamental of
possessions — the right to own the title to the land on which you
live and on which you work.
When
your talents are unleashed, then opportunity will be created for all
people.  America is lifting our ban on companies doing business
here, and your government has lifted restrictions on investment and
taken steps to open up your economy.  And now, as more wealth
flows into your borders, we hope and expect that it will lift up more
people.  It can’t just help folks at the top.  It has to
help everybody.  And that kind of economic growth, where
everybody has opportunity — if you work hard, you can succeed —
that’s what gets a nation moving rapidly when it comes to develop. 
But
that kind of growth can only be created if corruption is left
behind.  For investment to lead to opportunity, reform must
promote budgets that are transparent and industry that is privately
owned. 
To
lead by example, America now insists that our companies meet high
standards of openness and transparency if they’re doing business
here.  And we’ll work with organizations like the World Bank to
support small businesses and to promote an economy that allows
entrepreneurs, small businesspeople to thrive and allows workers to
keep what they earn.  And I very much welcome your government’s
recent decision to join what we’ve called our Open Government
Partnership, so that citizens can come to expect accountability and
learn exactly how monies are spent and how your system of government
operates. 
Above
all, when your voices are heard in government, it’s far more likely
that your basic needs will be met.  And that’s why reform must
reach the daily lives of those who are hungry and those who are ill,
and those who live without electricity or water.  And here, too,
America will do our part in working with you. 
Today,
I was proud to reestablish our USAID mission in this country, which
is our lead development agency.  And the United States wants to
be a partner in helping this country, which used to be the rice bowl
of Asia, to reestablish its capacity to feed its people and to care
for its sick, and educate its children, and build its democratic
institutions as you continue down the path of reform.
This
country is famous for its natural resources, and they must be
protected against exploitation.  And let us remember that in a
global economy, a country’s greatest resource is its people. 
So by investing in you, this nation can open the door for far more
prosperity — because unlocking a nation’s potential depends on
empowering all its people, especially its young people. 
Just
as education is the key to America’s future, it is going to the be
the key to your future as well.  And so we look forward to
working with you, as we have with many of your neighbors, to extend
that opportunity and to deepen exchanges among our students.  We
want students from this country to travel to the United States and
learn from us, and we want U.S. students to come here and learn from
you.
And
this truth leads me to the third freedom that I want to discuss: 
the freedom to worship — the freedom to worship as you please, and
your right to basic human dignity.
This
country, like my own country, is blessed with diversity.  Not
everybody looks the same.  Not everybody comes from the same
region.  Not everybody worships in the same way.  In your
cities and towns, there are pagodas and temples, and mosques and
churches standing side by side.  Well over a hundred ethnic
groups have been a part of your story.  Yet within these
borders, we’ve seen some of the world’s longest running
insurgencies, which have cost countless lives, and torn families and
communities apart, and stood in the way of development.
No
process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation. 
(Applause.)  You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to
transform cease-fires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace
where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State.  Those
efforts must lead to a more just and lasting peace, including
humanitarian access to those in need, and a chance for the displaced
to return home.
Today,
we look at the recent violence in Rakhine State that has caused so
much suffering, and we see the danger of continued tensions there. 
For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine,
have faced crushing poverty and persecution.  But there is no
excuse for violence against innocent people.  And the Rohingya
hold themselves — hold within themselves the same dignity as you do,
and I do.
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 incitement and to stop violence.  And I
welcome the government’s commitment to address the issues of
injustice and accountability, and humanitarian access and
citizenship.  That’s a vision that the world will support as
you move forward.
Every
nation struggles to define citizenship.  America has had great
debates about these issues, and those debates continue to this day,
because we’re a nation of immigrants — people coming from every
different part of the world.  But what we’ve learned in the
United States is that there are certain principles that are
universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter
where you come from, no matter what religion you practice.  The
right of people to live without the threat that their families may be
harmed or their homes may be burned simply because of who they are or
where they come from. 
Only
the people of this country ultimately can define your union, can
define what it means to be a citizen of this country.  But I
have confidence that as you do that you can draw on this diversity as
a strength and not a weakness.  Your country will be stronger
because of many different cultures, but you have to seize that
opportunity.  You have to recognize that strength. 
I
say this because my own country and my own life have taught me the
power of diversity.  The United States of America is a nation of
Christians and Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists, and Hindus and
non-believers.  Our story is shaped by every language; it’s
enriched by every culture.  We have people from every corners of
the world.  We’ve tasted the bitterness of civil war and
segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart
can recede; that the lines between races and tribes fade away. 
And what’s left is a simple truth: e pluribus unum — that’s what
we say in America.  Out of many, we are one nation and we are
one people.  And that truth has, time and again, made our union
stronger.  It has made our country stronger.  It’s part
of what has made America great.
We
amended our Constitution to extend the democratic principles that we
hold dear.  And I stand before you today as President of the
most powerful nation on Earth, but recognizing that once the color of
my skin would have denied me the right to vote.  And so that
should give you some sense that if our country can transcend its
differences, then yours can, too.  Every human being within
these borders is a part of your nation’s story, and you should
embrace that.  That’s not a source of weakness, that’s a
source of strength — if you recognize it.
And
that brings me to the final freedom that I will discuss today, and
that is the right of all people to live free from fear.
In
many ways, fear is the force that stands between human beings and
their dreams.  Fear of conflict and the weapons of war. 
Fear of a future that is different from the past.  Fear of
changes that are reordering our societies and economy.  Fear of
people who look different, or come from a different place, or worship
in a different way.  In some of her darkest moments, when Aung
San Suu Kyi was imprisoned, she wrote an essay about freedom from
fear.  She said fear of losing corrupts those who wield it —
“Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the
scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
That’s
the fear that you can leave behind.  We see that chance in
leaders who are beginning to understand that power comes from
appealing to people’s hopes, not people’s fears.  We see it in
citizens who insist that this time must be different, that this time
change will come and will continue.  As Aung San Suu Kyi wrote:
“Fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”  I believe
that.  And today, you are showing the world that fear does not
have to be the natural state of life in this country.
That’s
why I am here.  That’s why I came to Rangoon.  And that’s
why what happens here is so important — not only to this region, but
to the world.  Because you’re taking a journey that has the
potential to inspire so many people.  This is a test of whether
a country can transition to a better place.
The
United States of America is a Pacific nation, and we see our future
as bound to those nations and peoples to our West.  And as our
economy recovers, this is where we believe we will find enormous
growth.  As we have ended the wars that have dominated our
foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus for our
efforts to build a prosperous peace.
Here
in Southeast Asia, we see the potential for integration among nations
and people.  And as President, I have embraced ASEAN for reasons
that go beyond the fact that I spent some of my childhood in this
region, in Indonesia.  Because with ASEAN, we see nations that
are on the move — nations that are growing, and democracies that are
emerging; governments that are cooperating; progress that’s
building on the diversity that spans oceans and islands and jungles
and cities, peoples of every race and every religion.  This is
what the 21st century should look like if we have the courage to put
aside our differences and move forward with a sense of mutual
interest and mutual respect.
And
here in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia: We don’t
need to be defined by the prisons of the past.  We need to look
forward to the future.  To the leadership of North Korea, I have
offered a choice:  let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the
path of peace and progress.  If you do, you will find an
extended hand from the United States of America.
In
2012, we don’t need to cling to the divisions of East, West and
North and South.  We welcome the peaceful rise of China, your
neighbor to the North; and India, your neighbor to the West. 
The United Nations — the United States will work with any nation,
large or small, that will contribute to a world that is more peaceful
and more prosperous, and more just and more free.  And the
United States will be a friend to any nation that respects the rights
of its citizens and the responsibilities of international law.  
That’s
the nation, that’s the world that you can start to build here in this
historic city.  This nation that’s been so isolated can show the
world the power of a new beginning, and demonstrate once again that
the journey to democracy goes hand in hand with development.  I
say this knowing that there are still countless people in this
country who do not enjoy the opportunities that many of you seated
here do.  There are tens of millions who have no electricity. 
There are prisoners of conscience who still await release. 
There are refugees and displaced peoples in camps where hope is still
something that lies on the distant horizon.
Today,
I say to you — and I say to everybody that can hear my voice — that
the United States of America is with you, including those who have
been forgotten, those who are dispossessed, those who are ostracized,
those who are poor.  We carry your story in our heads and your
hopes in our hearts, because in this 21st century with the spread of
technology and the breaking down of barriers, the frontlines of
freedom are within nations and individuals, not simply between them.
As
one former prisoner put it in speaking to his fellow citizens,
“Politics is your job.  It’s not only for [the]
politicians.”  And we have an expression in the United States
that the most important office in a democracy is the office of
citizen — not President, not Speaker, but citizen.  (Applause.)
So
as extraordinary and difficult and challenging and sometimes
frustrating as this journey may seem, in the end, you, the citizens
of this country, are the ones who must define what freedom means. 
You’re the ones who are going to have to seize freedom, because a
true revolution of the spirit begins in each of our hearts.  It
requires the kind of courage that so many of your leaders have
already displayed. 
The
road ahead will be marked by huge challenges, and there will be those
who resist the forces of change.  But I stand here with
confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be
reversed, and the will of the people can lift up this nation and set
a great example for the world.  And you will have in the United
States of America a partner on that long journey.  So, cezu tin
bad de.  (Applause.) 
Thank
you.  (Applause.)
Source White House