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 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. Additionally, hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been released, and forced labour has been banned. Preliminary ceasefires have been reached with armies, and new laws allow for a much more open economy.
The US is a Pacific nation, and we see our future as bound to fellow Pacific nations and peoples to our West. And as our economy recovers, this is where we believe we will find enormous growth. As we have ended the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus for our efforts toward building a prosperous peace.
Here in South-east Asia, we see the potential for integration among nations and people. As president, I have embraced ASEAN for reasons that go beyond the fact that I spent some of my childhood in this region, in Indonesia. Because, with ASEAN, we see nations that are on the move – nations that are growing and democracies that are emerging; governments that are cooperating; and progress that is building on the diversity that spans oceans, islands, jungles and cities, peoples of every race and every religion. This is what the 21st century should look like if we have the courage to put aside our differences and move forward with a sense of mutual interest and respect.
This nation that has been so isolated can show the world the power of a new beginning, and demonstrate once again that the journey to democracy goes hand in hand with development. There are tens of millions who have no electricity. There are prisoners of conscience who still await release. There are refugees and displaced peoples in camps where hope is still something that lies on the distant horizon.
The US is with you, including those who have been forgotten, those who are dispossessed, those who are ostracised and those who are poor. We carry your story in our heads and your hopes in our hearts, because with the spread of technology and the breaking down of barriers in the 21st century the frontlines of freedom are within nations and individuals, not simply between them.
As one former prisoner put it in speaking to his fellow citizens, “Politics is your job. It’s not only for [the] politicians.” And we have an expression in the US that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen – not that of the president nor that of the speaker of the House, but the citizen.
This country is famous for its natural resources, and they must be protected against exploitation. Let us remember that, in a global economy, a country’s greatest resource is its people. So, by investing in you, this nation can open the door for far more prosperity.
Unlocking a nation’s potential depends on empowering all of its people, especially its young people.
So, as extraordinary, challenging and sometimes frustrating as this journey may seem, in the end, the citizens of this country are the ones who must define what freedom means. You are the ones who are going to have to seize freedom because a true revolution of the spirit begins in each of our hearts. It requires the kind of courage that so many of your leaders have already displayed to the world.
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. You will have a partner in the US on that long journey. Cezu tin bad de (thank you).
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