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Obama sends a message to Burma before historic visit

Monday, 19 November 2012 - 1:15pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Fresh from his re-election, Obama will become today the first sitting American president to visit Burma, which is emerging from decades of isolation.

President Barack Obama arrived in south-east Asia yesterday (Sunday) on a tour designed to project American power in the region, with a call to Burma's leaders to work harder towards democracy.

Fresh from his re-election, Obama will become today the first sitting American president to visit Burma, which is emerging from decades of isolation.

He will praise President Thein Sein for ending the dark era of junta rule, but will also push him to go much further towards genuine democracy. He will also stand side by side with the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.

"President Thein Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction," Obama told a press conference in Bangkok, the Thai capital.

"But I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived. The country has a long way to go."

Obama deliberately chose Thailand as the first destination on the trip in order to send a message that enduring relationships with democracies such as Thailand - however flawed they may be - would form the bedrock of US diplomacy as the region warily eyes a rising China.

Along with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, the president visited the Wat Pho temple and monastery in Bangkok. Both visitors followed Buddhist custom and removed their shoes.

As they chatted with their monk guide, Obama referred to budget negotiations in Washington, where a damaging series of tax increases and spending cuts loom. "We're working on this budget. We're going to need a lot of prayer for that," he said.

They also visited Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the hospital that has been his near-permanent home since 2009. "I thought it was very important that my first trip after the elections was to Thailand, which is such a great ally," said Obama, at a joint press conference with Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister.

Tomorrow Obama will attend a summit of South-East Asian leaders in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Burma and Cambodia remain under intense worldwide scrutiny for human rights abuses. Human rights groups have described Obama's visit as premature or called on him to rebuke publicly either government.

In the past four months, almost 200 people have died in sectarian violence in western Burma involving the Muslim Rohingya minority and the Buddhist majority. More than 110,000 mostly Rohingya people have been displaced. Meanwhile, an estimated 330 political prisoners remain in Burmese jails.

White House officials insist that the president will raise human rights abuses during his brief visit, and even those still suffering their effects are optimistic about the impact Obama's arrival will have.

Lae Lae Win, whose husband Myint Aye, a former member of Miss Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, was jailed for life on charges that Amnesty International has described as fabricated, said: "I welcome that President Obama is coming. I hope and pray that his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi will bring positive results and lead to the release of my husband."

Ordinary Burmese appear to have no doubt that the visit will have a positive effect on Burma's economic future.

Zeyar Winn was doing a roaring trade selling T-shirts emblazoned with the president's picture.

"President Obama's visit will be good for business and for education," he said. "We've been isolated for so long that we had become sterile. Now, Obama is coming, more foreigners will follow him."


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