YANGON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will become the first U.S. leader to visit Myanmar this month, the strongest international endorsement of the fragile democratic transition in the Southeast Asian country after half a century of military rule.
Obama will travel to Myanmar during a November 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia, the White House said on Thursday, confirming his first international trip since he won a second term in Tuesday’s election.
He is going ahead with the trip despite recent sectarian violence in western Myanmar that has drawn concern from the United States and European Union.
U.N. human rights investigators have criticized the quasi-civilian government’s handling of the strife between Buddhists and minority Muslims, and some Myanmar exiles see Obama’s trip as premature before political reforms have been consolidated.
The visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting U.S. president, will give Obama a chance to meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage the “ongoing democratic transition”, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Suu Kyi spent years in detention under the military as the figurehead of the movement for democracy. She was elected to parliament in April, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) ran in by-elections after boycotting a 2010 poll.
Obama will be in Myanmar on November 19, according to a senior government source in Yangon, where people expressed delight.
“I believe it is a clear sign of improved ties between the two countries and I am very glad that our NLD party played an important role in working for the emergence of this situation,” said NLD executive committee member Han Tha Myint.
Myint Soe, vice-chairman of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the historic visit showed Myanmar had now been admitted into the international community.
“It’s good for President Obama to see things with his own eyes,” he said. “I would like to request him to keep encouraging the democratization process in our country by helping to promote the socioeconomic standards of the people.”
Obama’s presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will highlight what his administration sees as a first-term foreign policy achievement and a development that could help counter China’s influence in a strategically important region.
Washington takes some credit for a carrot-and-stick approach that pushed Myanmar’s long-ruling generals toward democratic change and led to Thein Sein taking office as a reformist president in 2011.
But Obama also risks criticism for rewarding the new government too soon, especially after security forces failed to prevent bloody ethnic violence in the west of the country.
At least 89 people were killed in the recent clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas. Many thousands more have been displaced by the violence.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, an exile group, said Obama’s trip could “undermine the democracy activists and ethnic minorities”, but added that if the president was intent on going, he should broaden his agenda to include meetings with the still-powerful military and an address to parliament.
A senior administration official said Obama, who will also speak to civil society groups, was “acutely aware” of concerns about human rights, ethnic violence and political prisoners in Myanmar and would address those issues during his visit.
The United States eased sanctions on Myanmar this year in recognition of the political and economic change under way, and many U.S. companies are looking at starting operations in the country located between China and India, with its abundant resources and low-cost labor.
In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce U.S. influence across Asia in what has been dubbed a policy “pivot” toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Myanmar grew close to China during decades of isolation, reinforced by Western sanctions over its poor human rights record, but is now seeking to expand relations with the West.
In Beijing, a senior Chinese official from a border province said China saw no threat to its interests from Obama’s visit.
“We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world,” Qin Guangrong, Communist Party chief in Yunnan province, told reporters on the sidelines of a party congress.
“We believe that Myanmar’s leaders will exercise their wisdom to lead their country’s opening up. They know that the people of China will always be true friends of Myanmar‘s.”
Obama met Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on her visit to the United States in September. Thein Sein was also in the United States to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York but the two leaders did not meet.
U.S. Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, who is active on Myanmar issues, said Obama’s trip could be “the most significant step” in support of democracy there.
But he said: “There is still much more to be done. Too many political prisoners remain locked up, ethnic violence must be stopped, and not all necessary political reforms have been put in place.”
Obama will be in Southeast Asia to attend meetings in Cambodia centered on an annual summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is usually extended to take in leaders of partner countries.
Preliminary details for this year show the event will run from November 15 to November 20. The Cambodian government has said Obama will be in the capital, Phnom Penh, on November 18. The White House has yet to release a detailed itinerary.
The heads of government of China, Japan, Russia and other countries are also expected in Cambodia for the meetings.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Alan Raybould; Editing by Peter Cooney and Robert Birsel