President Obama spoke Monday to hundreds of students, officials, and former generals in long-closed Myanmar about freedom and the importance of finding strength in diversity. But for some, the more significant message came from what he did, not what he said.
Instead of traveling to the isolated capital, Naypyitaw, Obama became the first foreign leader to meet with President Thein Sein in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and cultural heart.
While the government says the location was chosen for logistical reasons, many cheered Obama’s decision to give a speech at the University of Yangon, a place brimming with opposition history and personal memories for many in the audience, rather than sequester himself with top leaders in the empty, soulless capital built by the former military junta in 2006.
‘‘The arrangement was made for mutual convenience,’’ said Zaw Htay, the director of the president’s office, citing the president’s time constraints.
The diverse 1,500-member audience — students, activists, lawmakers, former generals, and members of ethnic minority groups — mingled for several hours listening to jazz music while waiting for Obama to arrive.
Everyone, including the former generals and parliamentarians, had to walk through the same security gantlet. There was no VIP line, which surprised some in this hierarchical society.
‘‘We couldn’t even think of that two or three months ago,’’ said Rebecca Htin, an ethnic Karen.
‘‘The message is clear. We are moving more toward democracy. That’s encouraging for me.’’
‘‘There’s no separation because of Mr. Obama,’’ said Nge Nge Aye Maung, the chairwoman of the Association of Myanmar Disabled Women Affairs. ‘‘There’s no ranking. We are all together. We are all human beings. That’s human rights.’’
But there were still signs of the old days. Plainclothes government security personnel videotaped guests as they walked to the university’s Convocation Hall to hear Obama talk about freedom.
Is it Myanmar or Burma? Obama calls it both on visit
Officially at least, America still refers to Myanmar as Burma, the favored appellation of dissidents and prodemocracy activists who opposed the former military junta’s move to summarily change its name 23 years ago.
President Obama used that name during his historic visit Monday, but he also called Burma what its government and many other people have been calling it for years: Myanmar.
Obama’s use of that name was warmly welcomed by top government officials, who immediately imbued it with significance.
Myanmar presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing called the wording ‘‘very positive’’ and said it was an ‘‘acknowledgment of Myanmar’s government,’’ which has taken steps toward easing repression and transitioning to democratic rule since the military stepped aside last year.
US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the presidential phrasing was ‘‘a diplomatic courtesy’’ for Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein.
Democracy icon stands at side of a US president
Aung San Suu Kyi, the former opposition leader who endured decades of harassment and house arrest in her struggle for a free and democratic Myanmar, welcomed President Obama to her home for a meeting Monday.
Now a member of Parliament, Suu Kyi lives in a gated villa in Yangon, with razor wire along the top of the compound’s walls and a lawn ringed with roses. She once was held under house arrest in the same building.
Obama thanked her for her ‘‘extraordinary hospitality and grace’’ and the power of her example, which he said ‘‘has been inspiration to people all around the world, including myself.’’
Speaking to reporters, Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, cautioned that the transition to democracy will be a long road.
“We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success,’’ she said.