Obama, in Asia, says Myanmar trip to encourage democracy

Sun Nov 18, 2012 10:22pm EST
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By Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason

BANGKOK (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama denied on Sunday his upcoming trip to Myanmar was an endorsement of the government there, calling it an acknowledgement of the progress made in shaking off decades of military rule and encouragement for it go further.

On Monday, Obama will become the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar, also called Burma, part of a three-country Asian tour that, as his first post-election trek abroad, will show he is serious about shifting the U.S. strategic focus eastwards.

Some human rights groups object to the Myanmar visit, saying Obama is rewarding the country's quasi-civilian government before democratic reforms are complete. But he told a news conference in Thailand he knew there was much still to do.

"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be," he said.

"On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time," he added. "One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made and give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future."

Late on Sunday, state television in Myanmar said 66 more prisoners would be released on Monday, bringing to 518 the number released over the past week.

The previous batch did not appear to include any political prisoners, but a senior prison department official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that Myint Aye, a prominent human rights activist, would be among those freed on Monday.

It was not clear if other political detainees would be included. Obama has made the freeing of all political prisoners one of the conditions for the full lifting of sanctions imposed on Myanmar for rights abuses under the junta.   Continued...

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wave from the steps of Air Force One in Bangkok November 19, 2012. Poised to become the first U.S. head of state to travel to Myanmar, Obama will attempt to strike a balance on Monday between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing it for further reforms. REUTERS/Jason Reed