Obama prepares to make historic trip to Myanmar

Thailand, Cambodia also on the itinerary

WASHINGTON : Less than two weeks after his re-election, President Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit the once-pariah nation of Myanmar.

Obama: Will be first visit to Thailand

The visit draws attention to the country's shift to democracy and highlights what Mr Obama's administration regards as a marquee foreign policy achievement. Mr Obama will also travel to Cambodia, a first for a US president as well, and to Thailand during the Nov 17-20 trip. It will be Mr Obama's first state visit and his first trip to Thailand.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the visit by the US president fresh from a re-election will help reaffirm Thailand's position in the international arena.

"This will be the first time in the past four years that a US president makes a visit to Thailand. The last one was the working visit by former US president George W Bush in August 2008 during the Samak Sundaravej government," said Mr Surapong.

Mr Bush's first visit to Thailand was during his first term in 2003 while then-president Bill Clinton visited in 1996.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Manasvi Srisodapol said Mr Obama will arrive in Thailand on Nov 18 in the afternoon and will stay overnight in Bangkok before heading to Phnom Penh to attend the East Asia Summit.

At the summit he will meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

He is scheduled to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as the two countries mark 180 years of US-Thailand relations.

The symbolic highlight of the trip is Mr Obama's stop in Myanmar, a country emerging from five decades of ruinous military rule.

There he will meet with President Thein Sein and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the White House said.

While the trip places new focus on Mr Obama's foreign policy and to American attention to the Asia-Pacific region, it comes as he begins sensitive negotiations with Congress leaders on how to avoid looming tax increases and steep cuts in defence and domestic spending.

Mr Obama ended the longstanding US isolation of Myanmar's generals, which has played a part in coaxing them into political reforms that have unfolded with surprising speed in the past year.

The US has appointed a full ambassador and suspended sanctions to reward Myanmar for political prisoner releases and Mrs Suu Kyi's election to parliament.

The East Asia Summit in Cambodia will also provide Mr Obama with opportunities for possible sideline discussions with a number of fellow heads of state, including leaders such as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

"The Myanmar trip is potentially historic, and for that reason has both tremendous opportunity and risk associated with it," said Matthew Goodman, a former international economics adviser to Mr Obama.

But the East Asia Summit, he added, is also important "as an opportunity to reaffirm US engagement as an Asia-Pacific power in regional affairs and for the newly re-elected president to touch base with all the relevant regional allies, partners and other countries".

The Obama administration regards the political changes in Myanmar as one that could dilute the influence of China in a country that has a strategic location between South Asia and Southeast Asia, regions of growing economic importance.

But exiled Myanmar activists and human rights groups are likely to criticise an Obama visit as premature and one that rewards Thein Sein before his political and economic reforms have been consolidated. The military is still dominant and implicated in rights abuses. It has failed to prevent vicious outbreaks of communal violence in the west of the country that have left scores dead.

Government spokesman Maj Zaw Htay said Myanmar hopes "bilateral relations and cooperation will significantly increase after this historic visit".

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Writer: AP and Thanida Tansubhapol