Southeast Asia

Obama Departs Saturday on Southeast Asia Trip

U.S. President Barack Obama is turning his attention to diplomacy with Asian nations, departing Saturday on a trip that will take him to Thailand, Burma and then Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.

President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit in the East Room of the White House in Washington, file photo. President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit in the East Room of the White House in Washington, file photo.
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President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit in the East Room of the White House in Washington, file photo.
President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy and the deficit in the East Room of the White House in Washington, file photo.
Dan RobinsonVOA
WASHINGTON DC - U.S. President Barack Obama is turning his attention to diplomacy with Asian nations, departing Saturday on a trip that will take him to Thailand, Burma and then Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.  VOA senior White House correspondent Dan Robinson reports.

Mr. Obama visits three countries undergoing political change, all players in a region that is the focus of a re-balancing of U.S. economic, political and security interests.

In Bangkok, he will meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to underscore historic relations, including extensive decades-old military cooperation.

On Monday, he becomes the first U.S. president to visit Burma, where a fragile democratic transition is under way, although still dominated by the military. 

He also visits Cambodia, where the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen faces criticism for alleged human rights violations and authoritarian tactics.

Mr. Obama's reelection victory gives him added political clout, and according to Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an opportunity to further define the U.S. shift towards Asia.

“Thailand has a troubled democracy.  Cambodia has an increasingly repressive authoritarian system.  And Burma is trying to transition out, but is highly imperfect.  So, how the president frames this to me, it takes the pivot from a black and white, we either are engaging or not phase, to the part where it goes to color,” he said.


In Burma, Mr. Obama will meet with democracy figure and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi.  Their last meeting was at the White House in September.

The United States has eased economic sanctions.  American companies are cautiously surveying the investment landscape.

But Washington is realistic about challenges. Samantha Power, President Obama's key human rights adviser, says the visit is designed to provide a clear statement of U.S. support for further reforms.


"By virtue of a trip of this magnitude, we get a chance to really drive home the core messages about the next steps that need to be taken on the path to reform and the opportunities that exist by virture of the space that has opened up," she said.

Human rights organizations want Mr. Obama to speak out strongly about the need for further releases of political prisoners and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Frank Jannuzi heads the Washington office of Amnesty International.

“The key is that all of the steps that have been taken in Myanmar so far, are still fragile and reversible.  And so the president and his administration need to be shoring up the direction, and by no means should they be declaring mission accomplished in Myanmar,” he said.

Disputes over the South China Sea loom over the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, Mr. Obama's final stop. 

Chris Johnson, formerly a top China analyst with the CIA, says the effects of Chinese pressure on Cambodia and ASEAN earlier this year continue to unfold.

“They [China] chose to use the bluntest of possible tools to exercise this, which is their economic and political leverage over Cambodia, and what seemed striking to me at least at the initial point of the incident, was China did not appear to recognize the negative consequence that that would have certainly within ASEAN but also more broadly," he said.

White House officials say Mr. Obama will meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. 

Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there is likely to be discussion of the fiscal cliff facing the United States.

“The fiscal cliff or sequestration will be I would imagine [the subject of] some very strong hallway chatter.  He may end up reassuring some allies or partners on this or being asked about it," he said.

Regional leaders are concerned not only about the fiscal cliff, but also who President Obama will nominate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who put her mark on U.S. Asia policy during Mr. Obama’s first term.
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