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.
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 nation 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 defense 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 traveled to the nation, 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.
Many 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.
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 neighboring Vietnam, Richard Nixon traveled there in 1969 and Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and 1967, the records show.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington and Matthew Lee contributed to this story.