WASHINGTON - When President Barack Obama lands in Yangon on Monday, he will be the first sitting U.S. 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.
Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author, said the president may be able to connect with the country in a way another U.S. 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 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 who 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 traveled to Burma, Ceylon and Arabia as a cook for a British captain in the King's African Rifles.
Onyango Obama could hardly have imagined that seven decades later, his grandson would journey to Burma aboard a blue-and-white 747 known as Air Force One.
Obama arrives in Thailand today and meets with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The next day he visits Myanmar before joining a series of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.