Asia trip takes Obama White House into Myanmar time warp

Mon Nov 19, 2012 2:12pm EST
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By Matt Spetalnick

YANGON (Reuters) - It won't be mistaken for a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of moment.

But President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar on Monday sometimes felt like a return to an earlier era of presidential diplomacy - and his aides were determined to make sure that no one missed its historic significance.

The trip was carefully choreographed to highlight what the White House sees as a first-term foreign policy success for a newly re-elected president whose record on the world stage shows few triumphs so far.

There was the cautious first meeting with reformist President Thein Sein to keep him on track, landmark talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a speech to the Burmese people at a university steeped in the country's turbulent political history.

But there were also a few unscripted parts that underscored how strange it was for Obama to be feted by cheering crowds lining the streets of Yangon little more than a year after ordering aides to explore rapprochement with the long-shunned Southeast Asian country after decades of military rule.

On the fly, Obama decided to make an unscheduled stop at the Shwedagon Pagoda, where he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage went barefoot as part of Buddhist tradition at the revered shrine.

Even Obama's Secret Service agents were left scurrying shoeless and sockless, talking quietly into their radios, as they secured the area.

The road to Suu Kyi's lakeside villa, where she was kept under house arrest by the country's military rulers for much of two decades until her release in 2010, took Obama through a decaying but bustling city still bearing the marks of its British colonial past.   Continued...

U.S. President Barack Obama waves after giving a speech at the University of Yangon November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Minzayar