U.S. President Obama is no stranger to Southeast Asia having spent parts of his childhood in Indonesia and returning several times to the region as Commander-in-Chief.
And now, fresh off his reelection to the highest office in the land, President Obama will travel to the region next week on a three-country tour culminating in the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Phnom Penh from November 19th — 20th. The President will visit Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia in what is being billed as an historic trip for a sitting U.S. head-of-state.
Myanmar has seen remarkable improvements over the past year with respect to its human rights record. A country that had been ruled for decades by a brutal military junta, and which routinely terrorized its own people, implemented a stunning about face last October. Political prisoners were released, trade unions were allowed to be formed, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was emancipated from house arrest and allowed to stand in by-elections held in the spring. The transformation was due, in large part, to Western-led sanctions which had crippled the country’s economy.
Despite these positives, Myanmar is still plagued by relentless ethnic conflicts which have threatened to rip the country apart. One area that has received some media attention is the western state of Rakhine. There, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, Muslims and Buddhists have clashed ever since the dissolution of the British Raj. It was rationalized that Ms. Suu Kyi, now a member of Parliament, could have acted as a mediating voice in an effort to mollify tensions in the region. Instead, she has had very little to say on the matter.
President Obama’s visit to Myanmar will be the first ever by a U.S. President.
Next, the President will visit Thailand, a long-standing U.S. ally in the region. There is a laundry list of problems facing Thailand: a divided and segregated electorate, an aging monarch, outrageous accusations of lèse majesté, an Islamic insurgency in the South, and the status of former Prime Minister and lightning rod for controversy, Thaksin Shinawatra. However, as these issues are more or less internal problems — with the possible exception being that of the southern, Muslim separatists — President Obama is more likely to reinforce the U.S.-Thai friendship on matters of military cooperation, drug enforcement, and trade.
Lastly, President Obama will travel to Cambodia, host of the EAS and chair of ASEAN for 2012. I have written extensively about the deterioration of democracy in Cambodia, specifically over the past year. The government of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has presided over the curtailment of the free press, the erosion of civil liberties, and the proliferation of corruption which effects, literally, every sector of society.
Rights groups have been imploring the President to take these issues up with Mr. Hun Sen directly, calling Cambodia a “moral stain.” A White House senior aide indicated that the U.S. will press Cambodia on its human rights record, following a meeting with activists on November 12th.
Additionally, The New York Times ran an op-ed last month from opposition leader Sam Rainsy who lives in exile in France to avoid serving a prison sentence which he claims is politically motivated.
In his editorial, Mr. Rainsy called for President Obama to boycott Cambodia “in order to deny Hun Sen the legitimacy he is seeking to garner from the event.”
Southeast Asia is almost a forgotten area of U.S. foreign policy, but that should change during President Obama’s second term. The region is likely to play an increasingly important role in the administration’s “Asian-pivot,” the foreign policy initiative which focuses on a rising China and away from the Middle East prerogatives which dominated the previous decade.