Obama visits Thailand with eye on Mideast
President Barack Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra listen to national anthems Sunday during a welcome ceremony in Bangkok.
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BANGKOK -- President Barack Obama opened a three-country postelection swing through Southeast Asia on Sunday that is designed to highlight the growing importance of the region for U.S. foreign policy, even as he closely monitored the fighting in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama landed in Thailand to bolster a longtime ally and demonstrate that the United States will draw China's neighbors into a web of partnerships.
But as the death toll in Gaza and Israel worsened Sunday -- and factored into the president's speeches -- the violence underscored the challenges he faces in reorienting the United States away from the historic headaches of the Middle East toward the emerging Asia-Pacific region. As Mr. Obama has discovered on more than one overseas journey, the best-laid plans for progress around the world are often upended by new turmoil in the region that has dominated American attention for decades.
Speaking with reporters after meeting with Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr. Obama said he was working to ease the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but he defended Israel's bombardment of Gaza.
"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders," Mr. Obama said. "We are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself."
Mr. Obama landed in Bangkok in mid-afternoon and headed immediately to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, one of the country's most revered cultural outposts, where he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton inspected the famed giant reclining Buddha.
Even domestic issues followed the president, as he found himself talking about the so-called fiscal cliff back home with a Buddhist monk whom he asked to pray for a resolution. "If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I'm going to take whatever good vibes he's giving me," Mr. Obama said.
The president and Ms. Clinton also went to the Government House for meetings and dinner with Ms. Yingluck, who came to office in 2011, five years after her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed in a military coup.
Mr. Obama planned to leave this morning for Myanmar, which he will visit for about six hours before flying to Cambodia to participate in meetings with leaders from across the region. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit either country.
He defended his decision to visit Myanmar against criticism from human rights activists who consider it premature. Under President Thein Sein, the country -- which is also known as Burma -- has begun releasing political prisoners and easing restrictions on the news media. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been freed from house arrest and won a seat in Parliament. But more than 200 political prisoners remain in custody, and the government continues to wage a brutal campaign against insurgents in Kachin state. The government has also been accused of not doing enough to stop, and of even tacitly encouraging, the outbreak of violence against Muslims in Rakhine state.
Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite imagery showed extensive destruction of homes in an area where Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic group, live. The rights group said a wave of violence and arson in the region last month was carried out with the support of state security forces and local government officials.
Mr. Obama praised the government's reforms while saying that more work needed to be done. "This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," he said. "This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."
Mr. Obama has already sent the first U.S. ambassador in 22 years to Myanmar and eased sanctions, and aides hinted at further incentives. Benjamin Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, said Mr. Obama would be "addressing our assistance relationship."
His stop in Cambodia offers a challenge of its own. Unlike Myanmar's leadership, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled for more than a quarter-century with little indication of easing a system that has crushed dissent. Mr. Obama will be in Phnom Penh not to visit the prime minister but to attend meetings with regional leaders.
Even in Thailand, considered the most modern and sophisticated of the three countries on Mr. Obama's tour, the political system is precarious, particularly since the ouster of the prime minister's brother. Human rights groups cite abuses by security forces, restrictions on free speech and the failure to protect a large population of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers.
Mr. Obama made no mention of those concerns in his opening remarks and addressed them only when a Thai reporter asked about problems with freedom in his country. The president offered no criticism of his host.
"Democracy is not something that is static," he said. "It's something that we constantly have to work on."
First Published November 19, 2012 12:00 am