Southeast Asia

Obama Trip to ASEAN Signifies US Interest

President Barack Obama is using his first trip abroad since winning re-election earlier this month, to push for renewed U.S. interests on trade and economic development in Asia.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is greeted by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.  (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is greeted by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is greeted by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.  (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is greeted by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Irwin LoyVOA News
PHNOM PENH - Barack Obama has become the first U.S. president to visit Burma and Cambodia. Irwin Loy reports for VOA from Phnom Penh the U.S. leader's trip to attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations represents significant renewed U.S. interest in the region.

President Barack Obama is using his first trip abroad since winning re-election earlier this month, to push for renewed U.S. interests on trade and economic development in Asia.  Mr. Obama met Monday with leaders from the 10 ASEAN members.

“… in hosting the 2012 U.S.-ASEAN leaders' meeting.  This years marks 35 years of U.S.-ASEAN cooperation,” he said.

The diplomacy is part of what the Obama administration calls a “rebalancing” of strategic interests.  Speaking at a briefing at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies before Mr. Obama’s departure, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon explained the administration's goals.

“We aspire to see a region where the rise of new powers occurs peacefully, with the freedom to access the sea, air, space and cyberspace, empowers vibrant commerce. Where multi-national forums help promote shared values, and where citizens increasingly have the ability to influence their governments, and universal rights are upheld - universal human rights are upheld.  That is the future we seek in partnership with our allies and friends,” he said.

But critics are urging Mr. Obama to press Asian countries on human-rights abuses.  Burma has undergone significant reforms in the past year, but still faces serious criticism of its dealings with ethnic-minority groups and its handling of ongoing tensions in Rakhine state.  Cambodia has been criticized for jailing political opponents and continued land evictions.

Demonstrators staged a rally Monday in Phnom Penh urging Mr. Obama to press the government to end land grabs, which rights groups say have affected tens of thousands of Cambodians during the past decade. 

Activist Duong Kea urged Mr. Obama to speak to Cambodia.

"I urge Obama to tell the Cambodian government to release all the land victims and all the activists," he said.

President Obama will attend ASEAN meetings through Tuesday and is expected to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines, including a discussion with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
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