BANGKOK, Thailand — Had US President Barack Obama embarked on his current spin through Southeast Asia during campaign season, the attack ads would have practically written themselves. His detractors could make the case that, while America teeters on a fiscal cliff, Obama will be fraternizing with men who have risen to power through despotic cabals.
But on his first stop, a Thailand stopover characterized by pomp and pageantry, Obama defended his coming sit-downs with questionable leaders. Today and Tuesday, the president will meet ruling cliques of Cambodia, a nation marred by war and deep corruption, and Myanmar, the reforming pariah state formerly titled Burma.
“I’m not somebody who thinks 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 of a country,” Obama said.
Obama’s remarks recalled a 2007 controversy in which the then-senator took fire for theoretically agreeing to sit down with leaders in Syria, North Korea and other so-called "enemy" nations. A meet with an American president, he reasserted in Bangkok, should not be confused with a full endorsement.
“I don’t think anybody’s under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” Obama said. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Though Obama will spend only five or six hours in Myanmar today, he’ll be the first US president to walk the troubled nation’s soil. In its largest city, Yangon, he will meet Thein Sein, the bespectacled, 67-year-old president.
Thein Sein’s demeanor is bookish and mild. He is buoyed by a growing reputation for helming the nation’s transition from dictatorial military rule to an army-managed, quasi-democracy.
But Thein Sein is also a former commander with the same military lorded over by generals whose abuses brought on 15 years of recently-suspended US sanctions. Though his government has relaxed its stranglehold on power — a reign blackened by tortured dissidents and a population gripped by fear — it has yet to win a general election certified as free and fair by international observers.
In offsetting accusations that his meeting with Myanmar’s president is premature, Obama invoked his alliance with Nobel Peace Laureate and dissident-in-chief Aung San Suu Kyi, now a parliamentarian. But, during his press conference in Bangkok, he also mispronounced her name twice.
“I’m taking my guidance from Aung Yan Suu Kyi (sic), who knows quite a bit about repression in Burma,” he said. Obama later added that “if we see backpedaling and slipping, we’re in a position to respond appropriately.”
Obama may find it tougher to positively spin his pending meet-up with Hun Sen, Cambodia’s 60-year-old, tough-talking strongman.
If given the option, Obama would likely prefer to duck a meeting with Hun Sen, a prime minister of 27 years who, in the 1970s, served as a cadet with the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
But this year, Cambodia is hosting the annual East Asia Summit, an 18-nation powwow that draws heads of state from Russia, China, Australia and America to meet with Southeast Asian leaders. Sitting down with the host country's premier is more or less compulsory.
Obama would be wise to lay down a full-on, public critique of the Cambodian government’s abuses, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. The watchdog group and others, including Global Witness and Amnesty International, have detailed intense corruption, cronyism, land grabs and activist killings during Hun Sen’s reign.
Though the White House has also lamented these abuses at times, roughly half of Cambodia’s GDP is still supplied by foreign donations, many of them from the US government.
“We just want to see a full-throated criticism of the Cambodian human rights record. Obama should be saying that publicly for his own sake,” Robertson said. “He should think about inoculating himself when engaging with Hun Sen.”
This is not lost on the White House, which has all but admitted that Hun Sen would be deemed unworthy of a presidential meeting if he weren’t hosting an international summit. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told a White House press pool en route to Asia on Nov. 17 that “we would not be having a bilateral visit in the absence of the multilateral business that we’re doing in Cambodia.”
The White House, Rhodes said, has “very grave concerns” about Cambodia’s human rights record and that Obama “will raise that, certainly, when he sees Hun Sen. We’ll raise it publicly in every opportunity that we have to address it.”
Still, Robertson said, “the Americans have put their foot into it in the past.” He cited the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2006, awarding a medal to a longtime police commissioner, Hok Lundy, who enforced Hun Sen’s rule with threats and violence.
“He was a cold-blooded killer,” Robertson said. “You say ‘Hok Lundy’ to an ordinary Cambodian and their blood runs cold.”
However, Rhodes suggested that Obama’s spin through Myanmar and the nation’s dramatic turnaround story could motivate better behavior from other corrupt nations, Cambodia included. “When countries do take the right decisions,” he said, “we have to be there with incentives.”
On the eve of his flight to Myanmar, Obama cast his proximity to questionable rulers as a means of illuminating problems and hasten progress. “Change can happen very fast," he said, "if a spotlight is shone on what’s going on in the country and the people there feel their voices are heard.”