US President Barack Obama flexed US power in Asia yesterday on a regional tour that will make history when he lands in Myanmar, calling on its leaders to step up their political reform drive.
Obama touched down in Air Force One in Bangkok, sending a message that relationships like the six-decades-old treaty alliance with Thailand will form the bedrock of US diplomacy as the region warily eyes a rising China.
Obama will today become the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar. He will praise Burmese President Thein Sein for ending a dark era of junta rule, but also prod him to go much further toward genuine democracy.
Then, in a stark illustration of how far Myanmar has come, the US leader will stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where she languished for years under house arrest.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of the visit, Obama praised Myanmar’s reforms, but urged the regime to do more.
“President Thein Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction,” he said.
“But I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that Burma’s arrived,” Obama added.
“The country has a long way to go. I’m not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” he said.
After a 19-hour journey from Washington, Obama paid homage to Thailand’s history with a private tour of the Wat Pho temple.
“What a peaceful place,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the president, who remarked that they were having a “treat” because the normally crowded tourist attraction had been cleared for their visit.