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Associated Press
President Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, during his six-hour visit last week as part of his Asian trip.

Obama draws on Fort Wayne lessons

Burma trip acknowledges progress while demanding more

Myanmar or Burma, Rohinga or Yohinga, Rangoon or Yangon– pundits seem to enjoy word trivia ahead of world history in the president’s visit to this key Asian nation and have largely missed the true effect of this visit for all of Asia and likewise, all of us.

The Associated Press started the divisive media use of “Myanmar” with rules respecting the regime while officials worldwide use “Burma” out of respect for the freedom movement. Obama’s calculated use of both represents his precise understanding of the cultural, political and legal integration necessary in these changing times.

Speaking at the University of Rangoon where General Aung San and so many followers began the freedom movement of Burma, speaking to the dreams of free people everywhere, emphasizing Aung San’s daughter, Suu Kyi’s four cardinal principles, mentioning the unmentionable poison of the Muslim Rohinga and Kachin bloodshed in northern near China provinces, President Obama bravely brought U.S. power and prestige home to the people in a speech that united the diverse challenges of the task ahead. The narrow lifting of sanctions and the release of targeted foreign aid in this early stage tests those who are stuck in the past against Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in their cautious walk toward the future.

Just as the 1988 Burma democracy movement inspired Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, so freedom in this keystone nation comes at a critical time in world economic, democracy “springs” and strategic military realignments that will decide our grandchildren’s destiny. Just as Burma was the Golden Breadbasket of Asia and home of U.N. Secretary, U Thant before the junta, a free Burma is the key to our grandkids’ combined futures. We either swim toward the future or drown in our lazy comfort, ignorance and isolation.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Fort Wayne speech spoke perfectly to our broad and diverse Burma community in her admonitions of unifying work while preserving and recognizing ethnic, cultural, political, generational, language, religious traditions and pride, taking care “not to envy the success of others.” She read us well as we graduate 96 children of our ’88 freedom fighter generation that shall always define our Burmese national courage and pride while we join with them in a common future. Obama has taken our lessons from Fort Wayne back home to Burma, fulfilling Suu Kyi’s message to “use your freedom to promote ours.”

Fred Gilbert is a retired state caseworker who has served the Burmese since 1991 and 29 other refugee communities for 38 years.