WASHINGTON — Fresh from his historic re-election on Tuesday, Barack Obama will make history again later this month by becoming the first US president to visit Burma.
Although rumors of the 51-year-old’s visit have been circulating for days, the White House has finally confirmed that he will touch down in the former pariah state on Nov. 19.
“In Burma, the president will meet with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi and speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition,” an official statement revealed on Thursday, a day after Obama returned from Chicago following his victory in Tuesday’s presidential elections.
However, the White House did not release details of whether the 44th US president would be travelling to just Rangoon, Naypyidaw, both or elsewhere in the country.
Obama’s trip is part of a three-nation tour to the region from Nov. 17 to 20 that will also take him to Thailand and Cambodia. In Thailand, he will meet Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to mark 180 years of diplomatic relations and reaffirm bilateral ties.
“In Cambodia, the president will attend the East Asia Summit and meet with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [Asean],” the White House said, adding that he will discuss a broad range of issues including economic prosperity and job creation through increased trade and partnerships, energy and security cooperation, human rights, shared values and other issues of regional and global concern.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to meet his Burmese counterpart during an Asean defense minister meeting in Cambodia next week. The United States, however, has so far ruled out any resumption of a military relationship with Burma given concerns regarding human rights and child soldiers.
Obama’s Burma visit has been welcomed by a top American lawmaker. “President Obama’s visit to Burma has the opportunity to be the most significant step in the effort to support human rights and democracy in Burma,” said Congressman Joe Crowley.
However, while praising the substantial progress made in recent months, the 50-year-old said that there remains much more to be done. “Too many political prisoners remain locked up, ethnic violence must be stopped and not all necessary political reforms have been put in place,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the Burmese government to address these important outstanding issues.”
In January, Crowley, a seven-term representative from the Seventh Congressional District of New York, became the first member of the US House of Representatives to officially travel to Burma for over 12 years.
During this trip he met with Suu Kyi, families of political prisoners and several members of the government. In 2008, Crowley spearheaded efforts to award Suu Kyi with the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor bestowed by the US Congress—that she belated received in September.
Obama’s trip to Burma is the culmination of a series of high profile visits between the two countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma last December, and then Thein Sein and Suu Kyi came to the United States this past September.
“The United States is committed to standing with the government and the people of Burma to support this progress that has begun but is still a work in progress,” Clinton had told a Washington audience in mid-September when she welcomed Suu Kyi at the US Institute of Peace.
The official announcement of Obama’s trip comes one day after a prominent Washington-based Burmese activist issued a letter urging the president not to travel to Burma. In the event that he did, Aung Din, from the US Campaign for Burma, urged Obama to travel to violence-hit areas of the country, meet minority leaders and the head of the Burmese military.
“He should make his visit beneficial for the people of Burma by meeting with his real counterpart, Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and educate him to put the military under civilian control and serve the people of Burma,” Aung Din told The Irrawaddy.
“[Obama should] address the Union Parliament and encourage members of the Parliament to be courageous to amend the 2008 Constitution to be democratic and equal among all ethnic nationalities,”
“The president during his trip should also meet with all political parties, civil society organizations and former political prisoners and support their continued struggle for democracy, human rights and national reconciliation [and] visit refugees in Kachin and Rakhine [Arakan] states.”
No US president has ever visited Cambodia or Burma, yet Thailand is one of America’s oldest regional allies and has been a stop for White House incumbents since the mid-1960s. George W. Bush visited Thailand twice in 2003 and 2008, Bill Clinton visited in 1996, Richard Nixon traveled there in 1969 and Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and 1967, according to official records.
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