Obama embarks on post-election trip to Asia

The US president arrives in Thailand as part of a three-country visit that includes Myanmar and Cambodia.

Barack Obama, the US president, has visited Thailand as part of a three-country visit through Asia, using his first foreign trip since winning re-election to emphasise his administration’s focus on the region.

During his Thailand visit, Obama met on Sunday with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and King Bhumibol.

At a joint news conference with Obama, Shinawatra announced Thailand would join talks on deeper trade ties with the US and other countries under the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As part of the itinerary in Bangkok, a monk in bright orange robes gave Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a tour of the centuries-old Wat Pho temple, taking them past its massive reclining Buddha.

“In addition to the democratic reforms, we’ve been concerned about the continued ethnic conflicts in Burma

– Ben Rhodes,
US deputy national security adviser

Obama is also scheduled to make stops in Myanmar and Cambodia during his four-day tour.

The highlight of the trip is likely to be the historic stop in Myanmar, in what will be the first visit by an American president to that country.

The US lifted a decade-old ban on most imports from Myanmar, ahead of Obama’s visit.

The White House hopes his visit will push the country to lock in democratic reforms.

“In addition to the democratic reforms, we’ve been concerned about the continued ethnic conflicts in Burma,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters accompanying Obama aboard Air Force One.

The Obama administration still refers to Myanmar by its older name, Burma.

Rhodes added the Obama administration is pressing Myanmar to break its military ties to North Korea. “We’ve seen them take some positive steps in that direction,” he said.

Surprising sceptics, Myanmar launched reforms after its nominal end to nearly half a century of army rule last year.

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, a former general, released political prisoners, opened dialogue with ethnic rebels and
allowed once-confined opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for parliament.

‘Foreign policy legacy’

The trip marks Obama’s fourth visit to Asia in as many years. With a second term now guaranteed, aides say Obama will be a regular visitor to the region over the next four years.

“Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy,” Rhodes said.

The president’s motivations in Asia are both personal and strategic.

Obama has called himself America’s first “Pacific president” [GALLO/GETTY]

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, has called himself America’s first “Pacific president”.

The region gives him an opportunity to open up new markets for US companies, promote democracy and ease fears of China’s rise by boosting the US military presence in area.

The next day he heads to Myanmar and though he might be lauded by some for encouraging democracy in Myanmar, the American president is likely to receive criticism for engaging with a regime with a record of human rights violations and a brutal repression of its ethnic minorities. 

Hundreds of prisoners were released by Myanmar a week ahead of Obama’s planned visit but human rights campaigners allege that none of these were political prisoners.

Thailand is the oldest US ally in Asia, but the kingdom has been consumed by internal disputes of late, which escalated in 2010 into violence that left more than 90 people dead.

The president’s tour may be overshadowed, however, by violence in the Middle East and concerns about tax and spending talks with leglislators back home. 

Obama is scheduled to return to Washington early on Wednesday morning.