WASHINGTON/YANGON: President Barack Obama now has a freer hand to deal with a world of familiar problems in new ways. That could mean tougher Iran and Syria policies, or new engagement toward countries such as Cuba and North Korea. He could also refocus on the moribund Middle East peace efforts.
Officials said the first tweaks in Obama’s Iran policy could come within weeks.
But a pressing task is assigning a new national security team. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced her plans to retire and could stay a few weeks past January to help the administration as it reshuffles personnel. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is likely to depart soon after her. CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus is expected to stay on.
The president will become the first US leader to visit Myanmar this month, the strongest international endorsement of the fragile democratic transition in the Southeast Asian country after half a century of military rule.
Obama will travel to Myanmar during a Nov. 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia, the White House said on Thursday, confirming his first international trip since he won a second term in Tuesday’s election.
He is going ahead with the trip despite recent sectarian violence in western Myanmar that has drawn concern from the United States and European Union.
UN human rights investigators have criticized the quasi-civilian government’s handling of the strife between Buddhists and minority Muslims, and some Myanmar exiles see Obama’s trip as premature before political reforms have been consolidated.
The visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting US president, will give Obama a chance to meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage the “ongoing democratic transition”, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama’s presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will highlight what his administration sees as a first-term foreign policy achievement and a development that could help counter China’s influence in a strategically important region. At least 89 people were killed in the recent clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas. Many thousands more have been displaced by the violence.
The US Campaign for Burma, an exile group, said Obama’s trip could “undermine the democracy activists and ethnic minorities”, but added that if the president was intent on going, he should broaden his agenda to include meetings with the still-powerful military and an address to parliament.
A senior administration official said Obama, who will also speak to civil society groups, was “acutely aware” of concerns about human rights, ethnic violence and political prisoners in Myanmar and would address those issues during his visit.
In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce US influence across Asia in what has been dubbed a policy “pivot” toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
In Beijing, a senior Chinese official from a border province said China saw no threat to its interests from Obama’s visit.
“We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world,” Qin Guangrong, Communist Party chief in Yunnan province, told reporters on the sidelines of a party congress.
Obama met Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on her visit to the United States in September. Thein Sein was also in the United States to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York but the two leaders did not meet.
US Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, who is active on Myanmar issues, said Obama’s trip could be “the most significant step” in support of democracy there.
Obama will be in Southeast Asia to attend meetings in Cambodia centered on an annual summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is usually extended to take in leaders of partner countries.
The heads of government of China, Japan, Russia and other countries are also expected in Cambodia for the meetings.