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Unheard of becomes real as Obama visits Burma

President Obama, accompanied by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, addresses members of the media at her residence in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 19, 2012.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

RANGOON, BURMA Just two years ago, the notion that Burmese school children waving American flags would be lining Rangoon's main thoroughfare to welcome a sitting United States president would have been, simply, unthinkable.

But when Barack Obama touched down here late Monday morning, that's just what he saw. Reporters traveling with the president were told the children practiced their waves earlier this week -- and their words of welcome were read from discretely-sized index cards. But rehearsed or not, their enthusiasm was the display of a government whose slow embrace of reform has now earned an in-the-flesh stamp of approval from Mr. Obama.

A few members of the press were permitted to cover the president's visit with Nobel Prize winner, Congressional Gold Medal of Honor winner, and Burmese Parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in Rangoon. We were asked to stay on a designated area of Suu Kyi's impeccably manicured lawn and instructed not to roam around the grounds in the manner of tourists.

This was a very private place, we were told, after being politely reminded that this is where the human rights activist spent her 15 years of house arrest.

As our buses drove in, we saw a picture of her father, Aung San, sitting watch over the main gate. A founder of the Burmese Communist Party, he had worked to gain independence from the British, but was assassinated in July 1947, six months before independence was finally achieved.

Shortly before the president arrived, we heard a slow rumbling start to build among the throngs gathered in front of the home. "Obama, Obama, they chanted. And they would continue to do so throughout the president's 30 minute visit.

Suu Kyi emerged from her home to welcome the president, who bowed slightly upon greeting her. She then doubled back to welcome Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was traveling with Mr. Obama for what is likely the final time. The bond between the two women was fairly unmistakable -- and we debated whether we saw tears in Suu Kyi's eyes when the two embraced.

Following a private meeting, Suu Kyi and Mr. Obama gave brief remarks to the 60 or so gathered in the former's backyard. When asked, veterans of White House press coverage said they couldn't remember an audience so intimate, let alone at someone's private home.

A reserved Suu Kyi thanked the President for his present and future support through "the difficult years that lie ahead. The president hailed Suu Kyi's "unbreakable courage" and noted "encouraging progress" in a country still known for its incarceration of political prisoners and human rights abuses.

At the end of his statement, Mr. Obama took time to single out his secretary of state, who first visited Burma in person last year.

"This is her last foreign trip that we're going to take together," he said. "And it is fitting that we come here to a country that she has done so much to support."

Secretary Clinton was seated off-stage, essentially as a member of the audience, and listened as the president went on. A broad smile broke out on Suu Kyi's face, and she repeatedly nodded in the direction of a woman who had clearly become a friend.

"I could not be more grateful not only for your service, Hillary," Mr. Obama concluded. "But also for the powerful message that you and Aung San Suu Kyi send about the importance of women and men everywhere embracing and promoting democratic values and human rights."