WASHINGTON – Less than two weeks after his re-election, President Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the once-pariah nation of Myanmar, drawing attention to the country’s shift to democracy and highlighting what his administration regards as a marquee foreign policy achievement.
Obama will also travel to Cambodia, a first for a U.S. president as well, and to Thailand during the Nov. 17-20 trip. In Cambodia, the president will attend the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh and meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The symbolic highlight of the trip, no doubt, is Obama’s stop in Myanmar, also known as Burma, a country emerging from five decades of ruinous military rule. While there, Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and also with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the White House said.
Obama ended the long-standing U.S. isolation of Myanmar’s generals, which has played a part in coaxing them into political reforms that have unfolded with surprising speed in the past year. The U.S. has appointed a full ambassador and suspended sanctions to reward Myanmar for political prisoner releases and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament.
In a statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama intended to speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.
Activists in Fort Wayne’s large Burmese community were encouraged by the news of Obama’s pending trip.
Obama is good to the Burmese. I like this because he supports the Burmese people in Burma, Ko Win Shwe said.
Obama can support the transition, the change. This is the right time, U Tun Oo said. He supports the people who love democracy.
Nyein Chan noted that China, Russia and North Korea already have diplomatic and economic ties with Myanmar.
This time, the American government is getting a closer relationship with Burma, too. I have a great feeling about that, he said.
He said he expects Obama will speak to Burmese officials – at least in private – about human rights issues and ethnic conflicts in the nation.
A procession of senior diplomats and world leaders have traveled to the country, stopping both in the remote, opulent capital city Naypyitaw, built by the former ruling junta, and at Suu Kyi’s dilapidated lakeside villa in the main city Yangon, where she spent 15 years under house arrest.
The most senior U.S. official to visit previously is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in December became the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to Myanmar in 56 years.
The Obama administration regards the political changes in Myanmar as a top foreign policy achievement, and one that could dilute the influence of China in a country that has a strategic location between South Asia and Southeast Asia, regions of growing economic importance.
But exiled Myanmar activists and human rights groups are likely to criticize an Obama visit as premature, rewarding Thein Sein before his political and economic reforms have been consolidated.
The military is still dominant and implicated in rights abuses. It has failed to prevent vicious outbreaks of communal violence in the west of the country that have left scores dead.
Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.