Obama’s Six Hours in Myanmar

Photograph by Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visit the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on Nov. 19, 2012.

President Barack Obama, the son of a cultural anthropologist, listened attentively as his tour guide explained how to pour holy water over a Buddha at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

Fresh off a bitter re-election fight at home, Obama learned how the water, trickling down the Buddha’s left shoulder, could temper the 11 human flames that cause human suffering, from anger to hatred.

After performing the ritual, Obama turned to the cameras from the traveling U.S. press corps and said, “We are dousing those flames.”

It was Obama’s second shoe-less visit to a temple in 24 hours, and he again appeared to be addressing a divided nation at home as much as he was reflecting on the Buddhist traditions of the three countries he is visiting.

At the two temples, the president, a church-going Christian, seemed to transcend his immediate surroundings. And yet he didn’t arrive at an enlightened state of nirvana. He returned, it seemed, to the realm of Washington politics.

“We are warding off the flames of anger and hatred,” he emphasized at the pagoda, which presides over the city of Yangon from a hilltop.

“The flame of lust,” his guide helpfully added.

Obama nodded in acknowledgment.

During a tour of Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok yesterday, Obama joked with a monk that he needed his prayers for the U.S. to resolve the deficit-reduction talks he is undertaking with Congress.

“Yes, we’re working on this budget,” a laughing Obama told the monk who was guiding him and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the monastery tour.

“We’re going to need a lot of prayer for that.”

Later, at a press conference in Bangkok, Obama clarified his comments.

“I always believe in prayer,” he said. “If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I am going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to deal with some challenges back home.”

Today’s trip to Shwedagon, a brilliant complex of exploding colors, towering pagodas and sacred stupas, was a late addition to Obama’s schedule.

The first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, Obama saw the pagoda’s golden spires from the window of Air Force One, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, later told reporters on the flight from Yangon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

As Obama drove past throngs of well-wisher towards his first engagement, a meeting with President Thein Sein, Obama instructed his staff to make time for a trip. He thought it was important to pay respect to a symbol of Burmese unity on the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the country, according to Rhodes.

So after praising Sein for his moves towards democracy, Obama’s motorcade made for the temple. He untied his shoes and removed his socks before climbing the pagoda’s main stairs. Clinton, on her last foreign trip with Obama, accompanied him.

He later recounted to Aung San Suu Kyi the ritual that he preformed, careful to note that he followed Buddhist customs, according to Rhodes.

At the home that was also Suu Kyi’s prison, Obama reflected on the progress her nation had made while she was under house arrest.

“Here, through so many difficult years, is where she displayed such unbreakable courage and determination,” he said, as crowds chanted “Obama, Obama” outside the compound’s walls. “It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.”

Earlier, when he sat next to President Sein, Obama called the country “Myanmar,” the first and only time Obama has publicly deviated from the “Burma” that is official U.S. policy.

Sharing a podium with Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate, he used “Burma,” which is what she prefers.

However, he had one message for both leaders: The sights of Yangon, and the expressions of its residents, reminded him of his childhood in Indonesia, according to Rhodes.

Looking out of his is limo during his six-hour trip, he could see a country in transition: Men and women, with their legs wrapped in longyis, a traditional skirt that fastens at the waste, in front of Izzu dealerships and electronics shops. New high-rises, their windows tinted blue, abutted moldy colonial villas, crumbling from years of neglect.

Along the motorcade’s path, the crowd was not physically separated from the vehicles — a rarity for presidential travel in foreign cities. Smiles were abundant and many onlookers waved American flags. Some filmed the proceeding with iPads and smart phones that were wanting for an internet connection.

After Suu Kyi’s house, Obama lunched at the embassy before delivering a speech at Yangon University, a center for the pro-democracy. He quoted liberally from Suu Kyi’s own writing, as she sat in the front row with Clinton, who was fighting jet lag and appeared to nod off.

Obama opened and closed his university speech with a Buddhist gesture that is often accompanied by “Namaste.” He brought his hands together in prayer, held them close to his face, and bowed slightly to his audience.

Minutes later, he climbed the stairs of Air Force One with Clinton, and onto another chapter in presidential history: The first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Cambodia.

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