Obama kicks off Asian tour in Thailand
President Barack Obama flexed US power in Asia on Sunday, launching a regional tour that will make history when he lands in Myanmar to encourage its leaders to quicken a startling political reform drive.
Obama touched down in Air Force One in Bangkok, sending a message that relationships like the six-decades-old treaty alliance with Thailand will form the bedrock of US diplomacy as the region warily eyes a rising China.
He will become the first sitting US president to visit formerly isolated Myanmar, on Monday, and will laud President Thein Sein for ending a dark era of junta rule, but also prod him to go much further towards genuine democracy.
Then, in a stark illustration of how far Myanmar has come, the US leader will stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.
Obama will welcome “truly historic” progress in Myanmar, but underscore that more work needs to be done to ensure a full transition to civilian rule, democracy, and national reconciliation, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor.
Later Monday, Obama will fly to Cambodia, and a likely tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.
After a 19-hour journey from Washington, Obama first paid homage to Thailand’s ancient history, with a private tour of the Wat Pho temple, which is famed for a huge, golden statue of a reclining Buddha.
“What a peaceful place,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president, who remarked that they were having a “treat” because the normally crowded tourist attraction had been cleared for their visit.
Then Obama called at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok for an audience with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, seen as a symbol of continuity for the kingdom, which has a turbulent political past.
Obama and Clinton greeted and shook hands with the frail monarch, who turns 85 next month.
After talks focusing on trade, regional politics, counter-narcotics issues and terrorism, Obama was then due to hold a joint press conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
His visit to Asia, coming just 12 days after he won re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast emerging region he sees as vital to its future.
The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.
The stop in Myanmar will be rich in symbolism, not least when he gives a speech at Yangon University, where restive students stoked revolt repeatedly over five decades of military rule.
The White House hopes Obama’s visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein’s reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government – albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
But officials say that Obama will encourage the regime to double down on more reform, and that his influence could be important at a crucial moment in Myanmar’s emergence from decades of isolation and repression.
The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions.
But it continues to call for the release of scores of political prisoners still in Myanmar’s jails, as well as an end to sectarian bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Obama will also be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia late on Monday for talks with Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia summit.
But Rhodes said the White House had “grave concerns” over Cambodia’s record on human rights, and Obama would not be visiting were it not for the fact that the East Asia Summit is being held there.
On the summit’s sidelines, Obama will meet China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, whose relations with Beijing have frayed because of rival territorial claims.