White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes speaks to reporters during a press briefing, Aug. 22, 2014, in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes speaks to reporters during a press briefing, Aug. 22, 2014, in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

President Barack Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit Laos when he attends an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in that country next year.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told a think tank audience in Washington on Wednesday that ahead of the historic visit “there is a sense of potential” in the relationship between the U.S. and Laos “for the first time in a long time.”

Rhodes said an emerging partnership on development between the countries focuses on such areas as health, nutrition and basic education. “The U.S. is increasingly a real partner to the Lao government,” he said.

Just back from his own trip to Southeast Asia in part to lay the groundwork for the ASEAN meeting next year, Rhodes told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the United States is looked at through a historical lens in the region, and “in Laos, it is an ugly historical lens” associated with the bombs that fell during the U.S. invasion of Laos as part of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

But Rhodes said efforts like a U.S. young leaders program are changing that perception. He said the program, only recently extended to Southeast Asia, caught on there like “catching lightning in a bottle.”

He spoke of a young female participant who visited the U.S., where her favorite place was the western state of Montana. She is now back in Laos, working on issues of waste management and sewage, which the country sorely needs.

A member of military-backed Union Solidarity and D
A member of military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party holds leaflets promoting a candidate of USDP during an election campaign in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2015.

 Myanmar elections

Rhodes also said that in Myanmar, where elections are scheduled Sunday, international monitors are getting the access they need to polling stations. He said he thought the rest of the world would have “a credible set of facts” to deal with after the vote.

The election will take place amid reports of sporadic violence, a backlash against Muslims and worries about the integrity of the voter rolls. Myanmar officials have pledged that the vote will be free and fair, but Rhodes noted that "if there are mass problems with the voter lists in certain districts and not others, then that begins to raise questions.”

He also cautioned that Myanmar still has a culture in which a campaign speech can turn into incitement to violence. There is “a lot of churn, a lot of complexity in the country right now. ... People don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.

Myanmar has a lot to gain from a peaceful, fair election. It still operates under sanctions that have had a chilling effect on investors, but Rhodes hinted that there could be sanctions relief after the vote. "There's a lot of potential benefits down the road," he said.

Sanctions were imposed after a crackdown on activists in the 1990s by the junta that ruled Myanmar then.