YANGON, Myanmar – Downtown Yangon came to a near halt today during President Obama's historic visit to this once pariah nation.
Crowds flooded the streets, workers left their jobs and a nurse even snuck out of the hospital to see Obama, the first U.S. president to visit the Asian nation also known as Burma. The country has begun democratic reforms following a half-century of military rule.
Thousands of people lined the streets for a glimpse as Obama's motorcade headed to the Parliament building for a meeting between Obama and President Thein Sein.
Among the crowd were hundreds of students wearing matching school uniforms of white shirts and dark green sarongs. Many of those on the streets waved American flags and some held homemade signs reading "Welcome Obama."
In a country where people are often forced by the authorities into mass demonstrations, the seemingly spontaneous outpouring of support was striking.
"No authority asked us to welcome President Obama. I am here to support President Obama and also to see him," said Soe Nyunt, a 27-year-old laborer who waited for Obama before going to work.
Wai New Yi, 32, was disappointed that she did not see Obama as she waited near Yangon International Airport.
"I didn't even bat my eyelids when the motorcade passed by. I can see the motorcade but I didn't see President Obama," she said.
Ma Than Than Win, 42, wore an Obama T-shirt and held a banner with a picture of Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist who welcomed Obama to the home where she once was held under house arrest by the country's ruling military regime.
"We have never had the visit of a president from a big country like America. I came here because we believe that President Obama will be a big strength for Myanmar's democratic reforms as he is a world-recognized leader for democracy," said Win, an office worker in Yangon.
"We want him to know that Myanmar people love him and have high expectations of him to actively participate in Myanmar's democratic reforms. And we also hope that he will help Daw Suu in her efforts for the country," she said, referring to Suu Kyi. Daw is a term of respect in Myanmar.
During their meeting Obama and Thein Sein sat side by side in large padded chairs, with the U.S. and Myanmar flags behind them.
Thein Sein spoke first, saying through a translator that the relationship between their countries "has been progressing" and he looked forward to it strengthening in the coming years. He said he and Obama spoke about the need to continue promoting democracy and human rights. He also said Myanmar would continue to cooperate with the United States on those efforts.
Thein Sein expressed "our sincere appreciation for President Obama's vision and support." He also thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her efforts.
After the meeting, Obama made an unscheduled stop at the nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most revered sites in Myanmar. With their shoes and socks off, Obama and Clinton walked up the pagoda's steep steps. With a gold-plated, 325-foot spire encrusted with diamonds and rubies, the pagoda towers over Yangon and is the spiritual center of Burmese Buddhism. The pagoda had been cleared for Obama's visit, though the crowds gathered behind barriers nearby occasionally shouted "Obama."
Obama took part in a ritual often carried out at the pagoda – saying a blessing at a section of the pagoda platform that recognizes the day of Obama's birth, a Friday. Obama poured 11 cups of water into a basin, turning to reporters to explain that he was dousing "the flames" of anger, hatred and other vices.
Suu Kyi, the former opposition leader who endured decades of harassment and house arrest in her struggle for a free and democratic Burma, welcomed Obama to her home for a meeting. Now a member of Parliament, Suu Kyi lives in a gated residence with razor wire along the top of the compound's walls. The house is a light-gray stucco structure with a red-tiled roof. The lawn is ringed with roses.
The house has been renovated since Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in late 2010, with a new roof and freshly painted walls.
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. Clearly you will be playing a key role in your country's future for many years to come as Burma seeks the freedom and the prosperity and the dignity that not only the people of this country deserve but people all around the world deserve."
As Obama stood next to the world's most recognized democracy icon, he mispronounced her name repeatedly.
Ever gracious, Suu Kyi did not correct her American guest for calling her Aung YAN Suu Kyi multiple times during his statement to reporters after their meeting.
Proper pronunciation for the Nobel laureate's name is Ahng Sahn Soo Chee.
The meeting came after Obama met with Myanmar's reformist new President Thein Sein – a name he also botched.
As the two addressed the media, Obama called his counterpart "President Sein," an awkward, slightly affectionate reference that would make most Burmese cringe.
Note to presidential advisers: For future rounds of diplomacy, the president of Myanmar is President Thein Sein – on first and second reference.
In his remarks after the meeting with Suu Kyi, Obama also lavished Clinton with praise.
Once rivals for the presidency, the two are traveling together one final time. Clinton plans to leave office as soon as the U.S. Senate confirms her successor sometime early next year.
"This is her last foreign trip that we're going to take together and it is fitting that we have come here to a country that she has done so much to support," Obama said, noting that he dispatched his top diplomat to Myanmar a year ago after seeing "early flickers of reform."
Obama told Clinton he "could not be more grateful" for her service and for "the powerful message" that she and Suu Kyi send about the "importance of women, and men, everywhere, embracing and promoting democratic values and human rights."