Protests as Obama meets starstruck youngsters in Myanmar

Students listen to US President Barack Obama speak at Yangon University in Yangon Nov 14, 2014. Myanmar activists greeted US President Barack Obama with placards decrying the slow pace of reform in their country as he attended a lively public meeting
Students listen to US President Barack Obama speak at Yangon University in Yangon Nov 14, 2014. Myanmar activists greeted US President Barack Obama with placards decrying the slow pace of reform in their country as he attended a lively public meeting in Yangon on Friday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar activists greeted US President Barack Obama with placards decrying the slow pace of reform in their country as he attended a lively public meeting in Yangon on Friday.

A small band of protesters brandished signs reading "Reform is Fake" as Obama arrived to address a crowd of young people from countries around South-east Asia at the end of a two-night visit to Myanmar.

Obama has pressed the need for faster changes during the visit, warning Myanmar's reforms since shedding outright military rule in 2011 are by "no means complete" and urging the government to hold free elections.

The President took the protesters' frustration in his stride, telling them: "That's why we are here... you don't have (to) protest, you can ask questions directly."

While the opportunity for such shows of public dissent is a world away from the repression of the junta years, one of the banner-carriers said the reforms were little more than cosmetic.

"I believe that the government says it is reforming the country towards democracy but actually they are just faking," Su Su told AFP after the meeting.

"They just want international investment," she added, expressing a widely-held view that the fine words on democratic transition have been aimed at winning big contracts for the elite following the rollback of many sanctions.

The subdued mood on Yangon's streets contrasts with jubilant scenes two years ago during Obama's first visit, which was seen as a breakthrough for Myanmar's democracy campaign.

But Obama's candour and humour prevailed with the audience, many among the large Myanmar contingent wearing brightly woven traditional dress.

The crowd cheered and applauded enthusiastically as Obama quipped his way through a meeting that addressed everything from ethnic minority identity in the diverse and insurgency-prone country, to Myanmar's painfully slow Internet.

But despite the banter - one group of friends were instructed by the leader of the free world to play "rock, scissor, paper" for the chance to ask a question - Obama was also asked about some of the nation's grave challenges as it emerges from military rule.

He said the US was "deeply concerned" about the situation in strife-hit Rakhine state, where tens of thousands of the Muslim Rohingya minority remain in squalid displacement camps.

He also acknowledged that "some reforms have not come quickly enough".

But many among the audience were happy to put the thorny issues aside and just get close to the world's most powerful man.

Dozens swarmed to shake Obama's hand as he toured the hall before being whisked away to Airforce One for a flight to Australia and global challenges elsewhere.

"It's awesome! I can't believe I touched the President's hand," said Flora Ngun Zaw, a graduate from the remote Chin state, bedecked in a colourful beaded headdress and bangles.