Obama in Bangkok on Sunday. (Reuters)
Washington, Nov. 18: When Barack Obama lands in Yangon on Monday, he will be the first sitting American President to visit the country now known as Myanmar. But he will not be the first Obama to visit.
The President’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, spent part of World War II in what was then called Burma as a cook for a British army captain. Although details are sometimes debated, the elder Obama’s Asian experience proved formative just as his grandson’s time growing up in Indonesia did decades later.
“His roots go through Burma,” said Timothy Parsons, an African history professor at Washington University in St Louis who has written a book on the colonial East African military. “It is kind of an odd intersection of his life. It’s like the three corners of the triangle come together — America, East Africa and Southeast Asia.”
Thant Myint-U, a Myanmarese historian and author, said the President may be able to connect with the country in a way another American leader might not.
“The Burma that the President will see will look amazingly similar to the Burma his grandfather saw in the 1940s,” he said. “But what will not be readily visible are the effects of more than six decades of armed conflict, half a century of dictatorship and self-imposed isolation and 20 years of Western sanctions. It’s a country that lacks the most basic institutions,” the historian said.
Arriving in Thailand on Sunday, President Obama denied that his trip to Myanmar was an endorsement of the government there.
“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” he said. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Obama said: “One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made and give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future.”
The President’s grandfather, who went by Onyango, played a key role in the younger Obama’s life even though the two never met. He was a central figure in Obama’s voyage of self-discovery, captured in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, which describes the journey of a mixed-race American to Kenya to explore his roots.
Onyango Obama, believed to be born in 1895, was a member of the Luo tribe and worked for years as a servant for white colonialists in Kenya. His son, the first Barack Hussein Obama, was the future President’s father. Onyango Obama was described as a strong-willed and stern man, abusive of the multiple women he would marry over his lifetime.
He took the Arabic name Hussein when he converted to Islam and married a Muslim woman while living on the island of Zanzibar. When World War II broke out, according to the stories that the younger Obama was told, Onyango Obama travelled to Burma, Ceylon and Arabia as a cook for a British captain in the King’s African Rifles. The unit played a crucial role in the Burma campaign, according to scholars.
Some 75,000 Kenyans served in Burma during the war and many of them were transformed by their exposure to the outside world, according to scholars. Many met black soldiers and airmen from the US, who despite the lingering segregation and discrimination back home, had far more independence and responsibility than the Kenyans serving the British.
Onyango Obama returned home with a picture of a Burmese woman he claimed to have married — “She looked like my mother,” the future President wrote — and a brewing disillusionment with colonial rule.
Having been part of the fight for freedom against the Japanese empire, he and other Burma veterans began to rise up for freedom for themselves in Africa. “Like many others, President Obama’s grandfather emerged from wartime service a wiser and more politicised person,” said David M. Anderson, a professor of African politics at the University of Oxford.
Like many of them, Onyango Obama was sympathetic to the Kenyan African Union movement that would later evolve into the more radical Mau Mau rebellion.
When his grandson visited Kenya in the 1980s, he was told that the elder Obama was arrested by the British in 1949. His fifth wife, relating stories that she was told from before their marriage, later told journalists that Onyango Obama was tortured while in custody, his testicles squeezed with pincers and his nails and buttocks pierced with a sharp pin.
The Mau Mau rebellion broke out in 1952 and was brutally suppressed by the British, resulting in the deaths of at least 12,000 Africans. Onyango Obama reportedly died in 1979.
The stories of abuse fuelled speculation when President Obama took office in 2009 that he resented Britain and would not value the “special relationship” between Washington and London as his predecessors had.
Some in the British news media even interpreted the return of a Winston Churchill bust that sat in the Oval Office under President George W. Bush as a reaction to what happened to Obama’s grandfather, never mind that another Churchill bust remains in the White House.
But a new book this year suggested Onyango Obama was never actually arrested, much less tortured. In Barack Obama: The Story, the Washington Post journalist David Maraniss reported that five associates of the elder Obama “said they doubted the story or were certain it did not happen”.
One of his daughters said he had once been kidnapped, meaning perhaps that the story had become twisted over the years.
Either way, Burma was a place of awakening for Obama’s grandfather, a place where larger possibilities first presented themselves. But whatever ambitions he began to harbour then, he could hardly have imagined that seven decades later, his grandson would return to Burma aboard a blue-and-white 747 known as Air Force One.