WASHINGTON DC - White House officials are assuring critics that President Barack Obama will not ignore human rights concerns during his upcoming visit to Southeast Asia.
President Obama leaves Saturday for a three-day tour of Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. It is his first foreign trip since being re-elected, underscoring the importance of the administration's new focus on the region.
A highlight of the trip will be Obama's brief stop in Burma, the first ever visit by a U.S. president to the former military-ruled state.
Some rights groups object to the visit, including Human Rights Watch researcher Matthew Smith. He said the president should wait until more reforms are made.
"The risk of Obama visiting now, is that in effect, his presence alone will confer a certain amount of approval on the current government, which continues to violate human rights in a very serious way," he said.
Smith said he is most concerned that Burma has not yet released all of its political prisoners and has not intervened to stop the violence against minority Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.
But national security adviser Tom Donilon says the trip will provide an opportunity for Obama to put pressure on Burmese President Thein Sein and others who may be reluctant to more reform.
"The president's visit this time reflects his conviction that engagement is the best way to encourage Burmese authorities to further action," Donilon explained."There is a lot more to be done, and we are not going to miss this moment, in terms of our opportunity to push this along and to try to lock in as much reform and lock in this path forward as best we can."
Since Burma's military rulers stepped aside last year, its new nominally civilian government has released some political prisoners, opened talks with ethnic rebels, and allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to enter parliament.
The changes come as the U.S. is expanding ties across the region as part of its "pivot" toward Asia.
But Danny Russel, a top Asia adviser in the White House, cautions against viewing President Obama's visit as a "victory celebration," saying the trip will be an effective tool for convincing Burmese leaders who are reluctant to reform.
Aides also say Obama will raise concerns about Cambodia's long-standing human rights abuses when he attends a meeting of regional leaders in Phnom Penh.
Samantha Power, a White House official in charge of human rights issues, says the president will urge Prime Minister Hun Sen to hold free and fair elections and end land seizures, among other issues.
This week, Human Rights Watch warned that Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 27 years, will interpret Obama's visit as an endorsement and deepen his sense of inviolability if Obama does not speak out forcefully.
The New York-based group also wants President Obama to bring up human rights concerns with long-time U.S. ally Thailand. The rights watchdog says there are concerns about Thailand's continued restriction of free speech under lese majesties laws, military abuses against insurgents in the south, and inadequate protection of the country's large refugee population.