Administration officials said Obama intends to hail the Myanmar's "remarkable progress" toward democratic rule, but he also hopes to push Myanmar leaders for more reform.
WASHINGTON — A year after his administration signaled it would help Myanmar emerge from decades of repressive military rule, President Obama will make history Monday by becoming the first U.S. president to visit the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation.
Obama’s gesture, the centerpiece of a four-day trip to the region that will include stops in Thailand and Cambodia, comes as the White House seeks to send another strong message it is serious about its “pivot to Asia” — a rebalancing of U.S. military and economic interests after more than a decade of war in the Middle East.
During his six hours in Myanmar, also known as Burma, Obama is scheduled to meet separately with President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose release in 2010 following 15 years under house arrest launched her nation’s opening to the West. She has since become a member of parliament.
Administration officials said Obama intends to hail the country’s “remarkable progress” toward democratic rule, but also hopes to push Myanmar leaders further along the path of reform, mindful the nascent effort remains fragile.
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“We are not naive to this. We understand the dangers of backsliding, and if it happens, we’ll take note of it,” the White House national-security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“There’s a lot more work to do, but it’s a moment when the president really can attempt to lock in the progress that has been made and give a tremendous boost to the reform movement in Burma.”
Buffeted by criticism of its Middle East policy after recent setbacks to the Arab Spring democracy movement, the administration hopes the president’s visit to Southeast Asia will jump-start his second term’s foreign-policy agenda as the United States seeks to counterbalance China’s growing influence.
Obama will meet with Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and in Cambodia he will attend a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and discuss security issues. The president is also expected to meet privately with several foreign leaders, including those of China and Japan.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication, called the renewed Asia focus a “critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign-policy legacy.” He added, “We see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase U.S. exports and to increase U.S. leadership in the fastest-growing part of the world.”
But in betting on Myanmar, where the U.S. installed an ambassador in June for the first time in more than two decades, the White House has opened itself to criticism it is taking a victory lap too quickly. Human-rights organizations have lobbied hard against Obama’s visits to Myanmar and Cambodia because of what they say are ongoing abuses by their governments.
In Myanmar, activists cite ethnic violence against the Muslim minority that has left hundreds dead and up to 100,000 people displaced, as well as continued military corruption and an estimated 200 political activists in jail. They warn that Obama will be rewarding the government for modest reforms without any tangible new commitments to show for it.
“They believe in the magical power of an event and an address,” said John Sifton, of Human Rights Watch. “But this trip is premature and undeserved. Why are they going? I do not know a legitimate reason. They’re going and reinforcing a message that rewards them for something they’ve already been rewarded for.”
The White House launched the Asia focus a year ago, highlighted by Obama’s nine-day trip to the Asia-Pacific when he marshaled momentum behind a new trans-Pacific trade pact, agreed on a new military partnership to base up to 2,500 Marines in Australia, and announced Hillary Rodham Clinton would become the first U.S. secretary of state in 50 years to visit Myanmar.
U.S. foreign-policy experts who have recently visited the country said they saw signs of a serious commitment to reform.
In a paper for the Brookings Institution, Jeffrey Bader, a former National Security Council official, said newspapers published “lively debates” and ordinary people “spoke of the profound change in atmosphere and of their willingness to speak out on matters where there was fear and silence only recently.”
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also said he found a “serious intention” to reform the political system and get the military “out of the government.” But he cautioned the movement is in a “very precarious state,” noting the country’s generals are guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and maintain control of the chairmanship.