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Rights Issues High on Obama's Agenda in Asia

  • VOA News

US President Barack Obama steps aboard Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC, November 17, 2012.

US President Barack Obama steps aboard Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC, November 17, 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama is aboard Air Force One on his way to Asia, where he will visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia on his first foreign trip since being re-elected earlier this month.

The trip underscores Obama's increased focus on Asia as he tries to fulfill his pledge to strengthen the U.S. economy during his second four-year term in office. The Obama administration has said that American foreign policy and engagement will "pivot" toward Asia in the future.

When he arrives in Burma Monday, Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit the country, which has emerged from decades of tight military control. The Burmese government recently has yielded to international pressure and begun making democratic reforms, but some human rights groups have cautioned that it is not yet a fully free country.

President Obama is scheduled to meet with both Burmese President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation's leading democracy activist, who has only been free since 2010, after nearly two decades of detention or house arrest. Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but was only able to travel to Norway to accept the award this year.

The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch told VOA the president should have waited to travel to Burma until the country makes more progress in restoring basic freedoms. HRW says Burma should have gone beyond a partial amnesty and released all held as political prisoners, and also should have taken direct action to stop violence directed at ethnic and religious minorities, particularly in western Burma.

President Obama begins his Asian tour in Bangkok, Thailand, where he is arriving late Sunday afternoon (local time). HRW says the U.S. leader also should bring up human rights with this longtime U.S. ally, due to concerns about free speech, military abuses against insurgents in the south and inadequate protection of refugees.

Obama also will attend a meeting of regional ASEAN leaders in Cambodia, another destination where he is expected to raise concerns about long-standing human rights problems. The president is expected to urge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to hold free and fair elections and end land seizures.