YANGON, Myanmar – For 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi waited in her lakeside villa, confined to the small plot of land under house arrest, dreaming of her return to the world.
On Monday, the world, or a big piece of it, came calling on her.
The gates, topped with barbed wire, swung open and a black presidential limousine pulled into the driveway. Out stepped President Obama, pressing his hands together and bowing ever so slightly – a gesture the Burmese democracy leader, dressed in a green scarf, peach blouse and black sarong, returned.
They shook hands, and then another figure rushed forth and hugged her in a long, emotional embrace. It was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and outside the gates, a crowd had gathered and could be heard chanting: “Obama! Freedom!”
The leaders of the free world had come with a message of hope for 60 million Burmese, but it was this bow and this hug, with this one resident, that symbolized the most – a scene almost unimaginable just two years ago when Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, was still a prisoner in her own home and Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by a repressive military junta.
Released in 2010, she is now a member of parliament, and she visited Obama at the White House in September.
“I’m proud to be the first American president to visit this spectacular country, and I am very pleased that one of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world,” Obama told reporters in a brief appearance with Suu Kyi after they met privately.
He added: “Here, through so many difficult years, is where she displayed such unbreakable courage and determination. It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.”
The president’s stop here was the first of two that made history Monday as he continued his trip through Asia, the region he believes holds the most promise for American economic growth and security in the coming decades.
Obama flew from Myanmar to Cambodia, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit that country as well. Both nations have problematic human rights records, and Obama used his stop here to both celebrate the gradual democratic opening under way and warn that its progress should not be impeded.
The outpouring of support for Obama and his delegation from throngs of Myanmar citizens marked a high point of a trip that has been shadowed at times by the conflict in the Middle East, where Israel is striking targets in the Gaza Strip to suppress Palestinian rocket fire.
Obama has been trying to reorient American foreign policy from the greater Middle East, where more than a decade of war has dominated the country’s diplomatic and military resources, to the growing powers of Asia.
As Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said before the trip, “Our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy.”
After meeting with President Thein Sein, the civilian leader who took control of the country from the junta, Obama for the first time referred to the country as “Myanmar,” the name used by the nation’s own leaders.
The U.S. government’s policy has been to continue using “Burma” – the English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one used by the opposition when speaking English. In 1989, a year after brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta changed the name of the country in English from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.
“For the past 20 years, there were some disappointments and obstacles in our diplomatic relations,” Thein Sein, wearing a purple sarong-like longyi, said after meeting with Obama. He added that the two countries had “reached agreements on the development of democracy in Myanmar.”
The Myanmar government announced a series of pledges, including allowing human rights activists to visit prisons, inviting the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a local office and reviewing the cases of the remaining 200 or so political prisoners.
In the afternoon, Obama arrived at Yangon University, a center of pro-democracy demonstrations nearly 25 years ago, to deliver a speech about the country’s future.
It was a symbolic setting, as the school, once called Rangoon University, has an illustrious history, having produced famous alumni including Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi and a renowned general who led Burma to independence from British colonial rule.
Closed by the government for much of the 1990s for fear of renewed student protests, the university has since fallen into disrepair. Officials hope Obama’s visit will help boost its sagging fortunes.
“I came here because of America’s belief in human dignity,” the president told hundreds of students in the lecture hall, as Clinton, Suu Kyi and U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell sat in the front row. “Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers. But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about you – the people of this country.”
Earlier in the day, after her meeting with Obama, Suu Kyi had sounded a similar warning: “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working to a genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.”
In front of the television cameras, she leaned in toward the president, and he kissed her on both cheeks.