18 October 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. President Barack Obama's paternal grandfather arrived in Burma during World War Two as a Kenyan cook in Britain's colonial army, fighting Japanese invaders in horrific jungle conditions.

Today, people in Myanmar -- the country formerly known as Burma -- anxiously await the president's arrival during his Asia tour from Nov. 17 to Nov. 20 which also includes visits to Thailand and Cambodia.

Earlier U.S. involvement in the Buddhist-majority nation included visits by three Americans whose careers included the presidency.

But Mr. Obama will be the first to arrive as president in mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country.

He is proud of his ancestor's footsteps.

"Mr. Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, served in Burma during World War Two with the 11th East Africa Division of the King's African Rifles," said Thant Myint-U on his Facebook page.

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New York-born Thant Myint-U wrote three books about Burma, earned degrees from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge, and is a former teacher and United Nations official.

"The 11th East Africa Division was part of the British 14th Army advance down the Chindwin [River], and the Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay," Thant Myint-U said, posting an old photograph of other black soldiers in the King's African Rifles trudging up the road to Kalewa during the Chindwin River crossing during 1944.

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Japan occupied Burma from 1942 to 1945 before British, American and other forces defeated Tokyo. Burma was a British colony from the 19th century until 1948.

In 2011, while in London, Mr. Obama received applause from Britain's House of Commons and the House of Lords when he described how it was possible for "the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as president of the United States."

In 1879, Ulysses S. Grant visited Burma with his wife during a round-the-world trip two years after he was president.

Mr. Grant's ship stopped in Rangoon and Moulmein before sailing south toward Singapore and across the Pacific.

They were hosted by Britain's Chief Commissioner Sir Charles Aitchison, and visited the huge Shwedagon temple complex in Rangoon, and a nearby bazaar.

In his "Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: October 1, 1878-September 20, 1880," Mr. Grant described seeing "elephants at work" loading timber, and praised Burma's trains, rivers, and status of women who "act as salesmen and do business as freely as in Europe."

Before Herbert Hoover became president in 1928, he "lived on and off in Burma in the 1900s as a mining engineer and businessman, investing in the Namtu mines and making a fortune," Thant Myint-U said.

Namtu, in the hills of northeast Burma's Shan state, is famed for its mines, especially silver.

Mr. Hoover "once backed out of a Burmese mine after discovering fresh tiger tracks," according to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum's website.

(Hoover)

In those years, Mr. Hoover also developed lucrative gold mines in China, Australia and elsewhere.

Today, Myanmar's bountiful jade, rubies, silver and other precious minerals and metals attract buyers from around the world to annual auctions.

International and local investors operate mines and other extraction methods, using Burmese who are often exploited while uncovering the country's vast natural resources.

In 1953, before becoming president, Richard M. Nixon arrived in Burma as vice-president and faced anti-American demonstrators who opposed U.S. and Burmese involvement in the Korean War.

Mr. Nixon visited again in 1985 after resigning the presidency in disgrace.

In recent years, relations between the two countries were rocky but are now rapidly warming.

In 2008, the U.S. navy's four-ship USS Essex group waited more than three weeks in the Bay of Bengal off Myanmar's southern coast, offering helicopters, ambulances, heavy trucks, medical teams, food and water to victims of Cyclone Nargis which killed up to 100,000 Burmese.

The junta rejected that aid, but allowed $1.2 million worth of relief items to fly in from Bangkok to Rangoon, apparently to control the flow.

In 2010, Mr. Obama supported formation of a United Nations commission of inquiry into possible war crimes, and crimes against humanity, committed by Burma's military regime amid allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced labor.

Those accusations were muted after Myanmar's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, stepped down in 2011 and the opposition's iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from more than 15 years of house arrest.

She was allowed to be elected as a parliamentarian in April 2012.

Mr. Obama plans to visit fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Mrs. Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, and meet Myanmar's reformist president Thein Sein in Naypyitaw, the newly built capital.

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

Asia Correspondent
Ficker
Hello My Big Honey

(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)