Skip Global Navigation to Main Content
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation

Excerpts of President Obama’s speech at Yangon University

President Obama delivering speech at Yangon University

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.

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.  

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.

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.

Rakhine State Remarks:

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.

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.