Two years ago, I was the first American president to visit this country, and I was deeply moved by the generous hospitality that greeted us here. I was inspired by the incredible diversity and culture, and the various religious sites from different faiths and communities. I was inspired again, when I had the opportunity to visit the Secretariat – the birthplace of modern Burma; the blueprint for democracy; a home to Myanmar, Chinese, Indians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians who lived together peacefully – an incredible example of multicultural and multi-faith diversity and tolerance. It’s a profound symbol of this country’s rich diversity and this region’s potential.
We see young leaders who embrace the diversity of this region not as a weakness, but as a strength, and who realise that although we are all individually different and come from different traditions and different communities, we’re stronger when we work together. So the future of this region is not going to be determined by dictators or by armies; it’s going to be determined by entrepreneurs and inventors and dreamers and people who are doing things in the community. And you’re going to be the leaders who make that happen. Your generation has greater potential to shape society than any generation that’s come before. And you have now the chance to share knowledge and experiences with other young people around the world.
In countries like this, it’s critical that you get involved in that way. I’ll give you an example. Ryan Louis Madrid dreamt of being a journalist. But as he stood surrounded by the wreckage of a typhoon in his beloved Philippines, he made himself into an instrument for his fellow citizens rebuilding. Today the organisation he co-founded puts solar rooftops in developing and recovering communities. And he wants to use his skills to encourage other enterprising young people in developing countries to stay in their countries and help their own people, to think globally and act locally. You have the power to remind us all that human dignity is not just a universal aspiration, but a human right.
So Wai Wai Nu spent seven years of her youth behind bars as a political prisoner. And she called it her “university about life”. Today she uses that hard-earned degree to advocate for tolerance and acceptance, saying, “We too sacrificed many things for the same cause, that is, democracy.” You have the chance to overcome hatred and make sure that freedom rather than repression, hope rather than fear is governing your country. You have the power to set your own countries on a new and different path. And in all of this, America wants to be your partner. We want to help any way that we can to help you shape your future. So one way that we can do this: I’m announcing a significant expansion of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Fellowship, an exchange programme that will bring 500 South-east Asian leaders to the US every year. And these fellows will have the chance to strengthen their leadership skills, network with one another, share experiences and ideas, and then come back home better prepared to lead your region and change the world. Through this programme that I hope some of you will be able to take advantage of, when you spend time in the US our people learn from you. So it’s not just you learning from us.
And when these fellows then return home with these new ideas and new experiences, our embassies and USAID missions will reach out and offer the support and resources to help make your dreams a reality. So today I’m proud to announce that America will convene a young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative Summit in this region every year, giving fellows the chance to share their successes with each other and strengthen their network to accomplish even more.
So I hope some of you will take advantage of this. I expect many of you will take up the mantle of reform from student activists like Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing; take your rightful place as leaders in a stable and prosperous and progressive South-east Asia. And as you do, I promise you will have no better friend and partner than the United States of America.
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