BANGKOK: US President Barack Obama flexed US power in Asia Sunday on a regional tour that will make history when he lands in Myanmar, calling on its leaders to step up their startling political reform drive.
Obama touched down in Air Force One in Bangkok, sending a message that relationships like the six-decades-old treaty alliance with Thailand will form the bedrock of US diplomacy as the region warily eyes a rising China.
Obama will on Monday become the first sitting US president to visit formerly isolated Myanmar. He will praise President Thein Sein for ending a dark era of junta rule, but also prod him to go much further towards genuine democracy.
Then, in a stark 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 his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of the visit, Obama praised Myanmar’s reforms but urged the regime to do more.
“President Thein Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction,” he told a press conference. “But I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that Burma’s arrived,” he added, using the country’s former name.
“The country has a long way to go. I’m not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country.”
After a 19-hour journey from Washington, Obama first 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.
“What a peaceful place,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president, who remarked that they were having a “treat” because the normally crowded tourist attraction had been cleared for their visit.
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 Clinton greeted and shook hands with the frail monarch, who turns 85 next month.
After talks with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra focusing on trade, regional politics, counter-narcotics issues and terrorism, Obama held a joint press conference with her.
His visit to Asia, coming just 12 days after he won re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast-emerging region he sees as vital to its future.
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.
The stop in Myanmar will be rich in symbolism, not least when he gives a speech at Yangon University, where restive students stoked revolt repeatedly over five decades of military rule.
The White House hopes Obama’s visit to Myanmar will boost 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.