WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after his re-election, President Barack 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.
While the trip places new focus on Obama’s foreign policy and to American attention to the Asia and Pacific region, it also comes at as Obama begins sensitive negotiations with congressional leaders about how to avoid looming tax increases and steep cuts in defence and domestic spending.
Obama ended the longstanding 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.”
A procession of senior diplomats and world leaders have travelled 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 East Asia Summit in Cambodia will also provide Obama with opportunities for possible sideline discussions with a number of fellow heads of state, including leaders such as outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Also expected to attend are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
“The Myanmar trip is potentially historic, and for that reason has both tremendous opportunity and risk associated with,” said Matthew Goodman, a former Obama international economics adviser.
But the East Asia Summit, he added, is also important “as an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. engagement as an Asia-Pacific power in regional affairs and for the newly re-elected president to touch base with all the relevant regional allies, partners and other countries.”
“There’s going to be great interest in understanding his aspirations for his second term, and on Obama’s side for reassuring these other countries about continuity and desire for continued engagement,” Goodman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
As for Myanmar, 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 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 and one that rewards 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.
While no U.S. president has ever visited Cambodia or Myanmar, Thailand is one of the America’s oldest allies in Asia and has been a stop for American commanders in chief since the mid-1960s, according to the State Department historian’s office, which compiles records on presidential travel.
George W. Bush visited Thailand twice while president, in 2003 and 2008, Bill Clinton visited in 1996. During the war in neighbouring Vietnam, Richard Nixon travelled there in 1969 and Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and 1967, the records show.