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Why Obama is Right to Visit Southeast Asian States

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

The stereotype of the ill-informed American tourist afflicts presidents, too, it seems, with the media all too keen to pick up on the “gaffes” of the US head of state on any foreign visit. In the US itself, the conservative media will always seize an opportunity to bash a Democrat President, and, likewise, the Left-wing media won’t pass up an opportunity to bash a Republican one. Currently it’s the turn of President Barack Obama to be barraged with disapproval.

Written by Angel Millar

On Sunday, President Obama embarked on a short, three-nation tour of Southeast Asia. Beginning in Thailand, the President has also visited Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.

He has been lambasted for mispronouncing the name of human rights activist and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “Aung Yan Suu Kyi,” and for his use of the term “Myanmar” – “the preferred terminology of the former military government and currently nominally civilian government” – in preference to “Burma.” (Incidentally, a Google News search for “Myanmar” returns over two and half million results, so the President’s not alone in using the term.)

With all the focus on “gaffes,” the bigger picture has gone completely unnoticed. Not surprisingly. With the exception of the rise of China, and the loss of American industry to it, the US has been notoriously disinterested in Asian politics. It is the Middle East that preoccupies the US. The “war on terror” waged by the Bush administration quickly shifted focus and recourses from Afghanistan to Iraq, with the former becoming a virtually forgotten campaign for several years.

But no matter what the critics say, President Obama is right to visit Asia, including to relatively poor nations as Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. There are real geopolitical considerations. Both China and Russia are keenly interested in the region, as are smaller states close to, and economically aligned with, Russia. One of those – Belarus – recently signed a package of cooperation agreements with Bangladesh regarding trade, education, military and technical areas. Nuclear energy is another area of probable cooperation.

Asian states see the potential for economic growth. Bangladesh, a neighbor of Myanmar, aims to become a middle income country (MIC) within the next decade Thailand is actively cultivating a business-friendly environment, and the World Bank has said that it is now “one of the world’s most business-friendly regulatory environments for local entrepreneurs.”

But, as well as economic opportunity, there is also the possibility of serious conflict in the region. Radicalism is growing in South and Southeast Asia, and the potential for protracted, wide-scale conflict at some point in the future certainly exists. Although unrelated to President Obama’s visit, on Sunday, insurgents in the South of Thailand detonated a bomb under a train killing one and wounding 15. More than 4,500 people have been killed and more than 9,000 have been wounded since 2004 in the ongoing insurgency, according to the Institute for National Strategic Studies. In Myanmar, there has been wide-scale unrest between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya minority, with tens of thousands (mostly Rohingya) having been made refugees.

Although there have been suggestions that the US President’s visit gives cover to nations committing human rights abuses, the stark reality is that the world is changing, and that nowhere near enough attention has been paid to South or Southeast Asia. President Obama is the first sitting US President to visit Myanmar. And he is far more concerned with human rights than many of the powers focusing increasing attention on the region. If the US steps up its relationship with South and Southeast Asian states it will potentially benefit all parties.

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