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Obama affirms alliances in Asia

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau –

YANGON, Myanmar — President Barack Obama on Monday became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, a once-secretive nation emerging from decades of authoritarian rule.

Obama is expected to urge the Southeast Asian country’s government to stay the course toward democratic reforms. As he arrived to streets lined with children waving U.S. and Myanmar flags, the government announced new efforts aimed at opening up the once repressive government to outside scrutiny.

The White House has billed his visit as a celebration of the recent shift by the government of President Thein Sein, symbolized most publicly by the release of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after years of house arrest.

But the visit has also met with criticism from human rights advocates who argue that the accolades are premature and the presidential visit too big a reward for Myanmar’s government. Hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed and an ethnic conflict involving a minority group has erupted in recent violence.

The Myanmar government said Monday that it will allow the Red Cross to resume visits with prisoners and will begin crafting a process for reviewing the prisoner rolls left over from decades of harsh restrictions on political speech and organizing.

For its part, the White House plans to spend $170 million over two years to re-establish a USAID program in the impoverished country. The money will be contingent upon the government’s continued progress, said an administration official who would not be identified discussing the announcement.

Obama administration officials released excerpts of a speech Obama plans to give at Yangon University.

“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people,” the speech says.

The remarks include an indirect reference to the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority not granted citizenship. Only Myanmar can define its citizens, but Obama’s speech holds up the U.S. as a model.

“I say this because my own country, and my own life, have taught me this,” Obama says in the excerpts. “We have tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede, and the lines between races and tribe fade away.”

Obama’s six-hour visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was expected to include meetings with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.

Obama planned to praise the iconic dissident, now a member of Parliament and leader of the opposition party, for her “fierce dignity.”

“She proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart,” he says, according to the excerpts.

Obama planned to highlight the reforms — recognition of Suu Kyi’s party, release of some political prisoners, a ban on forced labor and a series of cease-fires that halted ethnic violence in some areas.

Obama suggested that his policies toward Myanmar, which opened diplomatic engagement after years of being cut off from the U.S., were at least partly responsible for the changes. And he sought to use Myanmar as a validation of his engagement strategy elsewhere.

“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’ ” the excerpts say. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship. America now has an ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the world.”

Myanmar is rich in rubber, timber and other potential exports. It also stands to play a key role in Obama’s effort to keep China’s influence in the region in check.

The visit to Myanmar is part of a three-day tour of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, a trip aimed at drawing attention to Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, a broad plan to shift military assets and diplomatic focus to the region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have consumed U.S. resources and attention.

Obama was accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she won’t serve another term.

During Obama’s stop in Thailand earlier Sunday, he paid a hospital visit to 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose 66 years on the throne make him the world’s longest-serving monarch. The president delivered a photo album filled with pictures of the king posing with U.S. American presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower. The last page — for the Obama photo — was left blank.

The gift fit Obama’s message of reaffirming old alliances. Thailand has the oldest diplomatic ties to the U.S. of any country in the region, stretching back to the 1833 Treaty of Amity and Commerce. But the relationship is not without strain.

Thailand continues to benefit economically from its status as a regional hub for development in Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, even as it juggles barely papered-over political divisions. At issue are perceived inequities, a monarchy that critics say is outdated and a festering wealth gap between urban dwellers who have benefited from economic development and many Thais in the rural areas who have not and feel left behind.

This has sparked a series of political crises in recent years, including a 2006 coup, protests in 2008 that closed Bangkok’s international airport, and months of street demonstrations that ended after a police crackdown in early April 2009 near the capital’s Victory Monument.

The country’s elite emerged from the turmoil wary of being too closely aligned with the U.S. and leaning in China’s direction.

Historically, Thailand has pursued a foreign policy that calls for surviving by “drifting with the breeze,” said Michael Green, a senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “And China is very much the breeze now.”

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