Obama: Historic Myanmar visit is sign of progress

BANGKOK (AP) — On the eve of his landmark trip to Myanmar, President Barack Obama tried to assure critics that his visit was not a premature reward for a long-isolated nation still easing its way toward democracy.

“This is not an endorsement of the government,” Obama said Sunday in Thailand as he opened a three-county dash through Asia. “This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”

Obama was set to become the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar with Air Force One scheduled to touch down in Yangon on Monday morning. Though Obama planned to spend just six hours in the country, the much-anticipated stop came as the result of a remarkable turnaround in the countries’ relationship.

The president’s Asia tour also marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising re-election campaign. For his first postelection trip, he tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed the region as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security.

Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama’s second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, tour the Wat Pho Royal Monastery with Chaokun Suthee Thammanuwat, dean of the Faculty of Buddhism and assistant to the Abbot of Wat Phra Chetuphon, in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham ... more >

China’s rise is also at play in Myanmar, which long has aligned itself with Beijing. But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy.

Obama has rewarded Myanmar’s rapid adoption of democratic reforms by lifting some economic penalties. The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, also known as Burma, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.

But some human rights groups say Myanmar’s government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, hasn’t done enough to earn a personal visit from Obama.

Speaking from neighboring Thailand, Obama said Sunday he was under no illusions that Myanmar had done all it needed to do. But he said the U.S. could play a critical role in helping ensure the country doesn’t slip backward.

“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,” Obama said during a news conference with Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Even as Obama turned his sights on Asia, widening violence in the Middle East competed for his attention.

Obama said Israel had the right to defend itself against Hamas’ missile attacks from Gaza. But he urged Israel not to launch a ground assault in Gaza, saying it would put Israeli soldiers, as well as Palestinian citizens, at greater risk and hamper an already vexing peace process.

“If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future,” Obama said.

The renewed instability in the Mideast is likely to trail Obama as he makes his way from Thailand to Myanmar and then Cambodia, his final stop before returning to Washington early Wednesday.

Obama planned talks in Myanmar with Prime Minister Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country’s recent reforms, and was expected to meet with democracy activist Aung Sun Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.

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