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A Myanmar policeman sits to provide security near a wall painting created by Myanmar graffiti artists to welcome U.S. President Barack Obama on a street in Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012.

Khin Maung Win, Associated Press

Obama's Myanmar visit is pivotal for Asia policy

  • Article by: DAVID NAKAMURA
  • Washington Post
  • November 17, 2012 - 7:13 PM

WASHINGTON - A year after his administration signaled that it would help Myanmar emerge from decades of repressive military rule, President Obama will make history on 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, comes as the White House seeks to send another strong message that 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 during a speech at Yangon University in Myanmar's historic capital but also to push its leaders further along the path of reform, mindful that the nascent effort remains fragile.

"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 on Thursday in Washington. "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."

'A critical part'

Buffeted by criticism of its Middle East policy after setbacks to the Arab Spring democracy movement, the administration hopes the president's visit to Southeast Asia will jump-start his second-term foreign policy agenda as the United States seeks to counterbalance China's growing influence.

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 United States installed a new ambassador in June for the first time in more than two decades, the White House has opened itself to criticism that it is taking a victory lap on Asia too quickly. Human rights organizations lobbied hard against Obama's visits to Myanmar and Cambodia because of what they say are ongoing abuses by their governments.

In Myanmar, the activists cite ethnic violence against the Muslim minority that has left hundreds dead and up to 100,000 people displaced, as well as an estimated 200 political activists in jail and continued military corruption. They warn that the Obama administration is rewarding the government for modest reforms without any tangible new commitments to show for it.

'Undeserved'

"They believe in the magical power of an event and an address," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at 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 that Hillary Rodham Clinton would become the first U.S. secretary of state in 50 years to visit Myanmar.

Clinton made the trip last December, stating that the United States is prepared to "walk the path of reform" with the Myanmar leadership. In June, the administration lifted prohibitions on U.S. economic investment in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi visited Washington in September to receive the Congressional Gold Medal and meet with Obama. That same month, Sein attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he praised Suu Kyi and heralded "amazing changes" in Myanmar.

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