Barack Obama begins Asian tour and answers critics over Burma
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has denied his trip to Burma amounts to an endorsement of the government there, calling it an acknowledgement of the progress made in shaking off decades of military rule and encouragement for it go further.
Today, Mr Obama will become the first serving US president to visit Burma, part of a three-country Asian tour that, as his first post-election trek abroad, will show he is serious about shifting the US strategic focus eastwards and away from Europe.
Some human rights groups object to the Burma visit, saying Mr Obama is rewarding the country’s quasi-civilian government before democratic reforms are complete. But he told a news conference in Thailand yesterday he knew there was much still to do.
“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” he said.
“On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time,” he added. “One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made and give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future.”
Late yesterday, state television in Burma said 66 more prisoners would be released today, bringing to 518 the number released over the past week.
A senior prison department official, who declined to be identified, said that Myint Aye, a prominent human rights activist, would be among those freed.
Mr Obama has made the freeing of all political prisoners one of the conditions for the full lifting of sanctions imposed on Burma for rights abuses under the junta.
Mr Obama will meet president Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded political and economic reforms since taking office in March 2011, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule.
“I’m not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” Mr Obama said.
“And, in part, I’m taking my guidance from what Aung San Suu Kyi, who I think knows quite a bit about repression in Burma, sees as the best means to continue the development and progress that’s being made there.”
White House officials have said Mr Obama will press Burma’s leaders to restore calm to the western part of their country and bring instigators of ethnic violence there to justice.
After Burma, Mr Obama will attend an East Asia summit in Cambodia as he seeks to recalibrate US economic and security commitments to counter China’s influence at a time when America is disentangling itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US administration regards Thailand as a key ally for advancing the “Asia pivot” that Mr Obama announced last year with an eye to an increasingly assertive China.
At a joint news conference with Mr Obama, Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced Thailand would join talks on deeper trade ties with the US and other countries under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP is a trade pact being negotiated between the US and Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei plus, more recently, Canada and Mexico.
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