President Obama made history twice Monday by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in Myanmar and Cambodia, two Southeast Asian countries known for their legacy of human rights abuses and government oppression, one showing signs of the progress and the other still a troubling concern.
The vivid contrast of Mr. Obama’s message on the pre-Thanksgiving tours through the two countries demonstrated the different paths the regional neighbors are taking after decades of violence and autocratic rule.
Mr. Obama began his visit in Cambodia Monday by meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen and pressing the leader of the Asian nation once known for its Khmer Rouge “killing fields” to improve his country’s record on human rights.
Aides were quick to point out that the president was in Cambodia to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the visit was anything but an endorsement of Cambodia’s government.
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters the meeting with Mr. Hun Sen had been “tense,” as Mr. Obama began by talking about how his trip to Myanmar just hours before had demonstrated the positive benefits that flow to countries that make democratic reforms.
He went on to advocate for the release of political prisoners in the country, highlighting the case of a radio broadcaster who was sentenced to prison for something he said on air.
During his meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Hun Sen defended his country’s record, noting that its actions are a response to unique circumstances and adding that he wants to deepen ties with the United States, Mr. Rhodes said.
After the meeting, Mr. Obama joined other regional leaders and kicked off the ASEAN summit in a nearby room. Mr. Obama is using the conference to encourage the removal of trade barriers between the U.S. and countries in the region and to try to pivot the U.S.’s focus to the region after spending nearly a decade consumed with wars in the Middle East.
The president’s first few hours in Cambodia were starkly different than his visit to Myanmar just hours before, where smiling, flag-waving crowds gathered on the streets to welcome him to a country that is showing signs of democratic progress.
During an address at the University of Yangon, Mr. Obama offered a “hand of friendship” and a commitment to helping Myanmar’s democracy mature, but he also said the U.S. would be watching for any serious backsliding and would gauge its support accordingly.
But Mr. Obama focused much of his message on the positive changes Myanmar is experiencing after decades of military rule.
“This remarkable journey has just begun, and has so much further to go,” he said.
Trying to please all sides, when speaking to government officials, Mr. Obama referred to “Myanmar,” the name used by the country's government, a departure from U.S. policy of favoring “Burma,” the traditional name preferred by dissidents and pro-democracy advocates.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama called the nation “Burma” when visiting the lakeside villa in Yangon of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of her past 20 years under house detention at her home until she was freed in 2010 and became a member of the country’s fledgling parliament.
Hugging her, Mr. Obama praised the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s fortitude and said she is a global inspiration for all others suffering under repressive regimes.
• This report is based in part on wire reports.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
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