Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visits Thongwa township in Yangon… (Khin Maung Win / Associated…)
NEW DELHI — President Obama will visit Myanmar this month, the White House said Thursday, as his administration seeks to bolster democracy and strengthen ties with nations in the region.
The visit will be part of a three-country tour Nov. 17-20 that will include stops in Bangkok, Thailand, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the president will attend an Asian summit, the White House statement said. In Myanmar, Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Though a visit to Myanmar carries political risks, most notably by staking presidential prestige on a government still dominated by generals with a brutal past, it dovetails with the administration's support for Myanmar's nascent democracy. It also fits with its so-called pivot strategy aimed at checking China's influence by bolstering military and political ties with democracies on that nation's periphery.
The timing of the visit presumably will not be appreciated in Beijing. China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change early next year, when Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as president. Analysts said little news is expected out of the Phnom Penh summit of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, attended by regional leaders, with the Myanmar trip more likely to grab headlines.
U.S. policy on Myanmar, also known as Burma, has gained more heft since Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi visited the United States in September. Washington has invited Myanmar to observe its "Cobra Gold" military exercise in Thailand early next year and announced an expansion of aid and a whittling away of economic sanctions.
And the World Bank, strongly influenced by Washington, last week offered the impoverished country an $80-million development package. Thein Sein was the first Myanmar leader to speak before the U.N. General Assembly when he made a landmark trip to New York in September.
The White House announcement follows a series of visits to Myanmar by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at Singapore Management University, said circumstantial evidence in recent days of a pending presidential visit included talk of a special editorial supplement planned by the Myanmar Times and bookings in major hotels for a sizable "Western delegation."
"Burma is an example of a foreign policy success for the Obama administration," she said. "It's strategic to make a visit there to boost his record."
In making the trip, Obama must counter criticism that he's largely ignoring Myanmar's checkered human rights record.
Myanmar has seen months of sectarian violence between minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims and majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, in which dozens of people have been killed and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, left homeless. The government doesn't recognize the officially stateless Rohingya as citizens, has blocked aid groups from providing humanitarian assistance and made little effort to find a solution.
Myanmar also retains many repressive laws and decrees, its army continues to commit human rights violations in ethnic Kachin state and an estimated 300 political prisoners are in jail, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a civic group.
"We think the visit is premature," Robertson said. "What is actually the rush?"
"It's a bit perverse to have a visit when there are any political prisoners in Burma," he said.
Analysts said the administration was betting that "robust engagement" with the newly civilian government would cement recent reforms — including multiparty elections, an easing of media restrictions and Suu Kyi's election to the parliament — and spur further opening.
In a statement Thursday, Suu Kyi urged the government to deploy more troops in western Myanmar to quell Buddhist-Muslim unrest. She had come under criticism for her reluctance to condemn discrimination against the Rohingya.
"Aung San Suu Kyi has moved from icon to politician," Welsh said. "And political prerogative has won over principle."
Even as Obama seeks to highlight a foreign policy success story, his administration's growing engagement with Myanmar could backfire if its generals decide that reforms are moving too fast, threatening their fortunes and grip on power, and revive restrictions.
"You saw this in Indonesia in the early 1990s, when it opened but then closed," said Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian studies at Australia's University of Sydney. "I think everyone's got a right to be cautious."