Obama to make landmark visit to Myanmar this month
Thu Nov 8, 2012 4:32pm EST
By Matt Spetalnick and Aung Hla Tun
WASHINGTON/YANGON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will visit Myanmar this month and meet both its president and its iconic opposition leader, marking a new milestone in U.S. efforts to promote democratic reforms in the once-isolated Southeast Asian country.
Obama will travel to Myanmar as part of a November 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will include stops in Thailand and Cambodia, the White House said on Thursday as it confirmed details of his first international trip since voters gave him a second term in an election on Tuesday.
The visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting U.S. president, will give Obama a chance to hold talks with President Thein Sein and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage the country's "ongoing democratic transition," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama's presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will be the strongest endorsement so far from the international community of the country's transformation under the quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011 after decades of military rule.
The visit will allow Obama to highlight what many see as a first-term foreign policy accomplishment in helping to push Myanmar's generals onto the path of democratic change. Obama will be in Myanmar on November 19, according to a senior government source in Yangon.
He is going ahead with the trip despite recent sectarian violence in western Myanmar, which has drawn concern from the United States, the European Union and U.N. human rights investigators.
Some 89 people were killed in clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas, according to the latest official toll covering the last 10 days of October. Many thousands more have been displaced by the violence.
The United States eased sanctions on Myanmar this year in recognition of the political and economic changes under way, and many U.S. companies are looking at starting operations in the country, located between China and India, with abundant resources and low-cost labor.
In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce U.S. influence across Asia in what officials have described as a policy "pivot" toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Myanmar grew close to China during decades of isolation, reinforced by Western sanctions over its poor human rights record, but it is now seeking to expand relations with the West.
Obama met Suu Kyi during her visit to the United States in September. Thein Sein was also in the United States around the same time to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, but the two leaders did not meet.
Suu Kyi, who spent years in detention under the military as the symbol of the pro-democracy movement and was elected to parliament in April, will be in India just before Obama's visit to Myanmar.
"She is leaving for India on a week-long visit on November 12, but I am not sure when exactly she will be back," Nyan Win, an official of her National League for Democracy party, told Reuters.
Obama will also be in Southeast Asia to attend meetings in Cambodia centered around an annual summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is usually extended to take in leaders of partner countries.
Preliminary details for this year show the event will run from November 15 to November 20 and the Cambodian government has said Obama will be in the capital, Phnom Penh, on November 18. The U.S. administration has not confirmed that date.
The heads of government of China, Japan, Russia and other countries are also expected in Cambodia for the meetings.
Obama will also visit Thailand while he is in Asia, the White House said.
(Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Brunnstrom)