By Antje Passenheim and Peter Janssen –
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama left Washington Saturday on his first foreign trip since winning re-election, which will include a historic visit to Myanmar — the first by a U.S. president.
Monday’s meetings in the Myanmar capital, Yangon, with President Thein Sein and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, are seen as a reward for the country’s moves towards democracy over the past two years.
However, Obama was expected to raise concerns about a recent outbreak of violence in the western state of Rakhine, where fighting between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has killed more than 100 people since June.
The significance of heading to Asia less than two weeks after being elected is part of Obama’s “pivot” of U.S. foreign policy towards the region.
The president’s trip will take him to Thailand first, where on Sunday he will visit one of Bangkok’s famed Buddhist temples, Wat Pho, as well as meeting King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Thailand’s first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawtara.
Obama is to travel Monday to Phnom Penh, where he is to attend a South-East Asian summit Monday and the East Asian Summit Tuesday.
Countering China’s growing clout in the Asia-Pacific is part of the U.S. pivot away from the Middle East although U.S. officials have downplayed any looming confrontation with Beijing.
In advance of Obama’s departure, the U.S. government eased a ban on some imports from Myanmar, although excluding jade, rubies and jewelry.
The U.S. earlier this year lifted a ban on U.S. companies doing business in Myanmar, shortly after Thein Sein allowed a by-election in which Suu Kyi and 42 other opposition members won parliamentary seats.
Myanmar is the world’s largest supplier of jade, often mined under harsh conditions in concessions granted to businessmen who had close connections with the junta that ruled during 1988-2010.
Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental group, has warned that Obama’s visit to Myanmar may be premature.
“Obama’s trip to Burma (the previous name for Myanmar) risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government that is still violating human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Obama’s success in securing tangible commitments on human rights, not his mere presence in the country, is crucial for promoting genuine and lasting reform.”
Human Rights Watch called on Obama to urge constitutional amendments to end the military’s grip on parliament, where 25 percent of the seats are appointed, and address human rights abuses in the Rakhine and Kachin states.
The Rohingya were made stateless by 1982 law that the government has thus far refused to amend.
Another 90,000 members of an ethnic minority have been displaced by a military offensive in the northern Kachin state.