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Obama's visit a sign of Myanmar's dizzying pace of change

YANGON, Myanmar --  Allison Morris stood in front of a crowded conference room in a downtown Yangon hotel and introduced a pair of would-be entrepreneurs called Team Optimist on Sunday, the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar.

The team -- whichlived up to their name -- then explained how they wanted to set up a sort of employment agency to bring back to Myanmar the skilled people who have fled or been forced abroad over the last five decades of military rule and economic stagnation.

Another couple then made a pitch for a recycling business, followed by a commercial college to teach traditional dance.

"There's so much enthusiasm here," Morris told NBC News. She's an American, raised mostly in Asia, who moved here in August to set up Project Hub Yangon, designed to identify, encourage and launch young entrepreneurs, and the pitches were part of a contest she'd organized.

PhotoBlog: Obama's trip to Myanmar

Her venture is based on a business model that grew out of the United States, mostly in Silicon Valley.

"Where else," she asked, "would they sell copies of the new foreign investment laws at traffic junctions -- alongside newspapers and soft drinks?"

She was referring to the new rules governing business investment here, which rather than gathering dust in a government office have been so eagerly sought after that they're being stocked and sold by the Yangon's street hawkers.

Indeed, after years of isolation, change has come to Myanmar. Obama, an embodiment of that change, on Monday became the first U.S. president to visit the country.

He was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the former capital Yangon, and met President Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011, and opposition leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Another one of those in the audience of Morris’ event was Naureen Nayyar, a Burmese-American blogger who covers the tech scene. "I can't believe they're pitching real ideas," she said. "In Silicon Valley, it’s all apps."

In the gloom of dusk, at a nearby traffic circle workmen raised the U.S. and Myanmar flags alternately on flagpoles. From a distance it looked like that historic photograph, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima." In its own way this too was historic, something that simply couldn't have been imagined just two years back.

PhotoBlog: In reforming Myanmar, junta mouthpiece gets makeover

Also almost unbelievable was the scene a little further down the road -- a fashion show, complete with thumping music and flashing lights. It was grandly titled "The Myanmar Internal Fashion Week" and claimed to be the first and biggest show of its kind in the country.

It took place outside a shiny new shopping mall.

The show was packed. Crowds of people -- curious, bewildered even -- carried children on their shoulders, and strained for a glimpse of a show that ranged from scantily-clad young women in tight shorts to lavish wedding dresses.  

Myanmar is changing fast, from the crowded roads to the buzz of new business activity. 

Critics of the Obama’s visit say it is premature when so much remains to be done.

But if you look at where it stood just two years ago, the change after decades of isolation is still astounding --  from the release of political prisoners (with more just ahead of Obama's visit) to greater press freedom. And of course the release of Aung San Suu Kyi along with her election as a member of parliament and partner in the reform process.

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It was appropriate that Obama chose Yangon University for a speech Tuesday. You could smell the fresh paint and lacquer after the authorities gave the dilapidated main hall a face lift for the occasion.

The university, long a center of protest and consequent repression, has seen it all -- hope, despair, and neglect. It played a key role in the independence movement and uprising against the generals, for which the students paid dearly.

More recently what was once one of the most famous and best regarded educational institutions in Asia was virtually closed by the military. Now there are hopes that it can restore its former glory. 

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Myanmar's renaissance will depend on rebuilding a shattered education system.

At the entrance of the university, where the military once hoisted Orwellian slogans, there are huge billboards advertising shoes, perfume and a line of fashion called Step. "Step into the future," reads the slogan.

Nearby, a group of policemen and security officials stood around chatting. One of their cellphones rang. The ringtone was "Gangnam Style," the South Korean pop song that became an international sensation earlier this year.

They didn't dance, but if they had it wouldn't have been surprising -- such is the almost surreal pace of change in Myanmar.

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