US President Barack Obama said his historic trip to Myanmar on Monday would recognise and prod reform, but warned no one should harbour illusions that the long isolated state had done enough to change.
Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar, when Air Force One touches down in Yangon, and hopes to embolden President Thein Sein to deepen the country’s startling march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government, this is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw,” Obama said.
The visit to Myanmar is the landmark centrepiece of Obama’s fifth regional trip as president, and his first since re-election, and represents his latest bid to anchor US foreign policy in dynamic, rising Asia.
In a symbolic illustration of how far Myanmar has come, the US leader will stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where she languished for years under house arrest during junta rule.
He will also hold his debut meeting with Thein Sein and address the people of Myanmar from the mothballed Yangon University, where students so often were the spark for anti-junta unrest that they were exiled to the suburbs.
But he has faced accusations from some human rights groups that his visit to the former pariah nation is coming too soon, especially as the Rohingya Muslim minority faces repression in the western state of Rakhine.
Thein Sein has faced accusations of not sufficiently protecting the Rohingya, but Washington was pleased last week when the former general condemned the violence as “senseless” and “criminal” in a letter to the United Nations.
Clashes in Rakhine have claimed 180 lives since June and displaced more than 110,000 people, mainly Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Obama said Thein Sein had taken clear steps that moved his country in the right direction, which had seen Suu Kyi elected to parliament and scores of political prisoners released.
“There is an articulated commitment to further political reform,” Obama said at a press conference in Bangkok, before adding: “I don’t think anybody is under an illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be.”
But Obama said that if Washington waited for a “perfect democracy” to emerge in Myanmar, the former Burma, it would be waiting for “an awful long time”.
“I am not somebody who thinks that the United States should just stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there is an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside the country.”
Obama added that in part, he was taking advice from Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate.
“If we see backsliding and slipping, we are in a position to respond appropriately,” Obama said.
To reward Thein Sein’s reform drive, and to encourage more action, the White House has lifted punishing sanctions it has levelled against Myanmar, including an import ban and travel curbs for senior officials.
But it wants him to go further, and is seeking a loosening of a political system that is still heavily stacked in favour of military-backed candidates.
Myanmar said on the eve of the visit that it would review prisoner cases in line with “international standards” and open its jails to the Red Cross, as part of efforts to burnish its reform credentials.
Obama arrived in Asia on Sunday, after a 19-hour flight from Washington, and paid homage to Thailand’s ancient history with a private tour of the Wat Pho temple which is famed for a huge, golden statue of a reclining Buddha.
Then Obama called at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok for an audience with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, seen as a symbol of continuity for a kingdom with a turbulent political past.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted and shook hands with the frail monarch, who turns 85 next month.
His talks with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra focused on trade, regional politics, counter-narcotics issues and terrorism.
Yingluck announced Thailand would join the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global effort to curb trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, and start negotiations on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planned giant Pacific free-trade pact touted by Obama’s administration.
The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.
On Monday Obama will fly to Cambodia, where there is likely to be a tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.