Monday November 19, 2012
Obama to make history with Myanmar visit
YANGON - US President Barack Obama heads to Myanmar on Monday for a historic visit aimed at encouraging dramatic political reforms in the former pariah state, which is emerging from decades of junta rule.
Obama will be the first serving US president to set foot in the country also known as Burma, in the starkest illustration yet of its emergence from decades of isolation and repression.
He is expected to praise President Thein Sein for ending a dark era of junta rule and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into mainstream politics, but also to prod the former general to go much further towards genuine democracy.
"President Thein Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction," Obama told a press conference in Thailand Sunday on the first leg of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia, defending his decision to visit Myanmar.
"But I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived," he added.
"The country has a long way to go. 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."
In a scene that would have been unthinkable until recently, Obama will on Monday stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.
The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government - albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
But officials say that Obama will encourage the regime to double down on more reform, and that his influence could be important at a crucial moment in Myanmar's journey along the road towards democracy.
The stop in Myanmar will be rich in symbolism, not least when he gives a speech at Yangon University, where restive students stoked revolt repeatedly over five decades of military rule.
Obama fever was sweeping Myanmar's biggest city Yangon ahead of the landmark visit, with his image emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and even graffiti-covered walls.
"I would like to tell President Obama to push the Myanmar government to walk the path to democracy bravely and to aim for full human rights which our country needs," said 28-year-old shopkeeper Thant Zaw Oo.
The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions.
But it continues to call for the release of scores of political prisoners still in Myanmar's jails, as well as an end to sectarian bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Obama's visit to Asia, coming just 12 days after he won re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast-emerging region he sees as vital to its future.
The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.
Later on Monday Obama will fly to Cambodia, where he is likely to face a tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region. - AFP