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Obama to visit Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand

November 09, 2012

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night party at McCormick Place, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. -AP Photo

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit Myanmar and Cambodia when he travels to the Asian nations later this month.    

Obama will meet Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein on a historic first visit to the country by a sitting US president designed to boost a political reform drive.

The White House said Thursday that Obama would also visit Thailand and attend the East Asia summit in Cambodia on the November 17-20 trip, which will mark his return to the world stage following his re-election.

During a few hours in Myanmar, Obama will deepen his administration's support for the startling reform process launched by Thein Sein that has seen Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for years, becomes a member of parliament.

The president is also expected to make a speech to civil society groups and may make a stop at a cultural site in Yangon.

In Thailand, a US treaty ally, Obama will meet Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and mark 180 years of diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian kingdom, a key regional military ally.

The president, who presided over a rebalancing of US diplomacy toward Asia, is also expected to hold bilateral talks with regional leaders on the sidelines of the summit in Cambodia.

He will use the Asia trip to “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,” the White House said in a statement.

Obama is expected to turn increasingly to foreign affairs in his second White House term, which begins in January, after devoting months this year to his re-election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney.

The president was criticized for having no bilateral meetings when he made a short hop to the United Nations General Assembly in September, as aides said the crush of campaign events left no time.

In addition to domestic headaches, Obama has a long list of foreign policy problems, including over Iran's nuclear program, violence in Syria and managing the often tense US relationship with a rising China.

He got to work on some of those issues on Thursday, returning congratulatory calls from the leaders of 13 nations, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

He also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande.

Relations between the US and Myanmar have thawed significantly since Thein Sein took the helm of a quasi-civilian regime last year and ushered in a period of sweeping reform after years of political repression by the military.

Hillary Clinton, seeking to support the reform effort, became the first secretary of state in more than 50 years to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, last year.

In September, Washington rolled out a red carpet welcome for Suu Kyi when she visited the White House and held private talks with Obama.

During her trip, which dovetailed with a visit by Thein Sein to the United Nations, Washington lifted a raft of sanctions on Myanmar that had been imposed to punish the suppression of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Washington ended sanctions on American investment in Myanmar in July, enabling a major US trade delegation to visit the country.

Global corporate giants from Coca-Cola to General Electric have already begun to vie for a share of an expected economic boom in the long-isolated nation.

Fresh from his re-election triumph, Obama has a small window for foreign travel before Thanksgiving on November 22 and a year-end budget showdown with congressional Republicans.