He will be the first sitting US president to set foot in the long-time pariah nation, reflecting a dramatic thaw in relations brought about by sweeping political changes under a new reformist government.
Obama, who has dubbed himself America’s first “Pacific president”, landed in Bangkok and was due to have an audience with Thailand’s revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as well as talks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The highlight of his tour will come on Monday when he flies into Yangon and meets President Thein Sein, followed by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and makes a major speech at Yangon University, a symbolic cockpit of student unrest.
He will then journey to Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, taking place amid renewed disquiet in the region over the geopolitical consequences of China’s rise amid a flurry of territorial disputes.
Obama is making his fifth visit to Asia since taking office in 2009 and his second this year, a period otherwise consumed by heavy-duty campaigning ahead of his poll triumph on November 6.
Obama’s first stop in Thailand is meant to signal that Washington is committed to a strong set of alliances in a region preoccupied by the geopolitical implications of a rising China.
“Allies are the cornerstone of our rebalancing effort in Asia,” said Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor, as Obama flew to Bangkok aboard Air Force One.
“Thailand is actually the oldest treaty ally of the United States, an ally since 1954 and a key partner in Southeast Asia.” With Yingluck, with whom he will also have a press conference, Obama plans to discuss US cooperation with Thailand, counter-narcotics issues, terrorism and trade. He will also inaugurate a programme to connect US and Thai universities.
The White House hopes Obama’s visit to Myanmar will give a fresh boost to Thein Sein’s reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government — albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
But officials say that Obama will encourage the regime to double down on more reform, and that his influence could be important at a crucial moment in Myanmar’s emergence from decades of isolation and repression.
The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions.
Myanmar last week pardoned hundreds more prisoners but they were apparently mostly common criminals and not dissidents. Activists slammed the move as a ploy to curry favour before Obama’s visit.
Ahead of the visit, Rhodes said Myanmar had made “positive” steps towards weaning itself off a military relationship with North Korea, and dangled the carrot of future military exercises with US and Thai forces if the reform effort is sustained.
Thein Sein has said Myanmar will refrain from military cooperation with North Korea, but sectors of the country’s powerful military are believed to be resistant to cutting all ties with the Stalinist state.
The trip will be somewhat overshadowed by a wave of violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, which the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Saturday branded as “genocide”.
Obama will also be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia late on Monday for talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia summit.
But Rhodes said the White House had “grave concerns” over Cambodia’s record on human rights, and Obama would not be visiting were it not for the fact that the East Asia Summit is being held there.
Cambodia has been a staunch supporter of China. It was seen as scuttling an initiative on resolving
Asian maritime disputes when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited for regional talks in July.
On the summit’s sidelines, Obama will meet China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, whose relations with Beijing have frayed because of rival territorial claims.