Photo: Yahoo News
President Obama—in his first post-election foreign trip—has made a historic trip to Southeast Asia, including the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to Myanmar (formerly Burma), another to long-time regional ally, Thailand, with a final stop in Cambodia, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit that country as well.
The President was welcomed Monday morning by cheering crowds, waving small American and Myanmar flags, lining the streets of the former capital, Yangon. It was a sight unimaginable just a few short years ago. This was demonstrated potently when he visited the home of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of the opposition party in Myanmar’s legislature but formerly imprisoned for her human rights activism, 15-years under house arrest by the then-ruling military junta.
Speaking to the press on the historic nature of his visit, the President remarked:
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government. This is an acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”
The whirlwind trip—taken so soon after his reelection and amid a rapidly approaching “fiscal cliff” deadline and dicey congressional negotiations—has naturally drawn the usual political criticism from voices on the right. However, the normally critical, conservative Wall Street Journal printed a largely favorable article on the trip and its historic significance.
The President also met with Myanmar’s President, Thien Sein, a former member of Myanmar’s brutal military dictatorship, which has imprisoned thousands of dissidents. Though—in his meeting with President Sein—Obama referred to the nation as “Myanmar”…the country is still referred to—officially—as Burma.
The visit signals a thawing in relations there and it was followed quickly by a trip to Thailand, a staunchly democratic American ally (dating back to the Vietnam War, when it hosted U.S. military bases), as well as a trip to Cambodia (another presidential first). This trip is seen as a sign of greater American focus on Asia in a second Obama Administration and—no doubt—a more than subtle signal to China, which has been flexing its economic, diplomatic and military muscle in the region, seeming to take advantage of America’s foreign policy focus elsewhere in the world.
The trip—though short—is sure to be reassuring to our long-time allies in the region – like Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia – and the many nations (including Vietnam) engaged in various territorial and/or sensitive economic disputes (over fishing rights, oil, minerals deposits, etc.) with their more bellicose, larger neighbor, China.
Though foreign trips like this are largely seen as little more than symbolic gestures without much real substance, coming so quickly after his own tough reelection at home and pressing domestic economic issues, it signals a re-commitment to furthering improvements in nations like Myanmar, as well as on human rights issues. It also reaffirms America’s role as a world power, prepared to counter China’s growing desire for economic and military hegemony in Asia and the Pacific.