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President Makes History, Stirs Controversy In Asia

Nov 19, 2012



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the fiscal cliff is seen as a serious threat to the nation's financial health but for federal workers the impact could be even more immediate and devastating. We'll take a closer look at that in a moment.

But first, President Obama is in the middle of his historic trip to Asia, including the first-ever presidential visit to Cambodia, today. That's the last stop on his three-country tour of Asia. He also visited Thailand and Myanmar - also known as Burma. Here is an excerpt from some of his remarks in Myanmar.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm proud to be the first American president to visit this spectacular country and I am very pleased that one of my first stops is to visit with an icon of democracy who's inspired so many people, not just in this country but all around the world.

HEADLEE: He's talking about Aung San Suu Kyi there. Joining us to talk about the news and some of the controversies surrounding this tour, Michael Sullivan. He's a freelance reporter and former southeast Asian correspondent for NPR. He's joining us from Bangkok. Michael, welcome to the program.


HEADLEE: First, let's talk about why the president is taking this tour now. I mean, we're six weeks away from the deadline for the fiscal cliff. Obviously, he's got a lot of trouble going on in the Middle East. There's the Petraeus scandal. There's many other things the president could be focusing on. Why is he in Asia?

SULLIVAN: Because he's been talking about making Asia a priority of his administration for a long time, the so-called Pivot Toward Asia as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. And it's something that he's very much interested in doing and it's something that he's doing coming right out of the gate after the election.

I mean, we had Defense Secretary Panetta here last week in the region, talking to people in the region, and now of course we have the president along with the secretary of state here in Thailand and in Myanmar and in Cambodia and I think this sends a signal to people in the region that the president is serious about making Asia a priority in this next term.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned the Pivot to Asia, it's something that the deputy national security advisor had mentioned. It's something that's mentioned by a lot of people in the Obama administration. In fact, he said a Pivot to Asia would be Obama's foreign policy legacy. That's what Ben Rhodes said, the deputy national security advisor. Do you think that's true?

SULLIVAN: Whether it's true or not, I can't tell you, but I can tell you that it's quite clear that this century is China's century and I think many people are aware of it. And if the United States is going to be in a position where they can compete with China on many levels - economically, politically - then they have to recognize that China is ascendant and we have to get on board and we have to be ready.

HEADLEE: So what has the Chinese government said about not just the president's visit now but about the president's focus on that corner of their world?

SULLIVAN: Well, the Chinese, predictably, were not too happy about President Obama going to Myanmar because for a long time when Myanmar was a pariah state, the Chinese were basically Myanmar's only real benefactor. So now they're a little worried that this place that used to be almost wholly owned and operated by them is now wide open and there are companies and there are countries coming in from all over who want to help Myanmar. And the Chinese fear it will be at their expense.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about President Obama's Asia tour with reporter Michael Sullivan. So let's talk about the individual trips that the president took and let's begin with Myanmar, which he actually called Myanmar, despite the U.S. government's preference for its old name of Burma.

And it's been reported that Aung San Suu Kyi actually privately counseled the Obama administration against the president visiting right now. Why?

SULLIVAN: I think she's a little worried about sending the wrong impression, too early, that everything is coming up roses in Myanmar when, in fact, this is a long, slow process from going from an authoritarian regime for more than half a century to a full-fledged democracy. And while there has been a great deal of progress made, instituted primarily by President Thein Sein, there is still a great deal that needs to be done.

There are a great many political prisoners who still need to be freed. There are many ethnic conflicts that still need to be resolved. And I think the thinking was probably that, you know, if you go this early then you're giving them the stamp of approval and then they can sort of take their foot off the gas when it comes to further reforms.

And I think some people, and Aung San Suu Kyi would be included among them, I think, wanted the administration maybe to take things a little slower.

HEADLEE: So you mentioned ethnic conflict. First of all, maybe you can explain exactly what it is you're talking about and whether or not this is something the president addressed while he was there.

SULLIVAN: Well, there's ethnic conflicts on many of Myanmar's borders and they have to do with the fact that there's a Burman majority in the country but there are also many minority groups, and they live primarily near the borders. And they want a greater say. They want greater autonomy in their lives and that's something that the central government just hasn't been willing to do.

So there have been numerous clashes between the central government and some of these ethnic militias in the past. Those clashes are largely dying down now except for in the north where the Kachin and Myanmar's army are still fighting fairly regularly. But even more worrisome, I think, is the ethnic violence that's going on in northern Rakhine state, between the Burmese there and the minority Muslims there that shows no signs of abating.

And frankly, I see no attempt by the central government or, for that matter, by the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to urge restraint on this. And I'm actually very worried that this kind of violence could spread elsewhere. Because even though Muslims are a small percentage of the population - I think they're only about four or five percent - I mean, there are large Muslim populations in Yangon, in Mandalay, in many of the other bigger, populated cities and these are Muslims who are more wealthy.

They're traders. They're businessmen and they're less likely to put up with the kind of abuse that the Muslims in Rakhine state are going through right now. I think that could be a real problem.

HEADLEE: You know, this is the president's fifth trip to the region but it's his first time - any U.S. president has visited Burma - Myanmar - and Cambodia. And the reaction of the people in those two countries was markedly different. In Myanmar he was greeted as a hero - literally. There were signs that welcomed him as a hero, thousands of people in the streets. In Cambodia it was much more muted. Why the difference?

SULLIVAN: Well, in a place like Myanmar which has been under, you know, such a repressive government for so long, somebody like Obama is a rock star, because in their minds it's his administration that helped Myanmar's government to decide, well, we better open up now. And so they think that he's, you know, a very, very, very, very good leader. So it's not surprise to me that you saw all those people with their American flags and cheering wildly on the way in.

On the other hand, Cambodians, well, Cambodians are sort of used to having the same man in power for the last, well, how long has it been? Well, Hun Sen has been in power, I think, since Ronald Reagan administration. So that tells you how long he's been in power. And he says he's got no intention of leaving until he's 90, and I think he's only 60 now. So you kind of get the picture of what Hun Sen is.

And there was probably a little trickledown from the government, from the top, that said OK, President Obama's coming but he's not really coming to see us and to sit down and talk with Hun Sen and to have dinner and to chat like old friends. Because Hun Sen has a very, very poor record on human rights. Everyone knows it. And the president will probably keep him at arm's length if he can.

Try to avoid any photo opportunities if he can. The president is in Phnom Penh for one reason, and that's for the East Asia Summit. He's not there to make nice with Hun Sen. So that probably explains some of the reaction of the people.

HEADLEE: And he actually assumed office in 1998. And the president was quite clear to say that his visit to Cambodia was not endorsement of the Cambodian government. But let's talk about Thailand, which obviously U.S. presidents have visited many times before. What was the president hoping to accomplish in Thailand?

SULLIVAN: It was a courtesy call. It was the first stop that he made on his way to Myanmar and he hasn't been here before, and Thailand is one of the U.S.'s oldest, closest and most reliable allies in the region. And I think coming to Thailand first was simply an acknowledgement of that fact.

HEADLEE: So the president is actually in Cambodia and the original purpose for this whole tour was for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and meeting there with the leaders. Is there any substantial business expected to come out of that conference?

SULLIVAN: Well, there's two meetings going on. There's the ASEAN meeting that you mentioned and then there's the East Asia Summit. And from what I gather, today's ASEAN meeting was very contentious and I expect tomorrow's East Asia Summit might be contentious, as well, because of the issue of the South China Sea. And this is the area where there's lots of natural gas, lots of oil. It's one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and China claims nearly all of it and Vietnam and the Philippines strenuously disagree. They claim that part of it is theirs, too, and several other countries in the region also disagree.

So all the smaller countries have been trying to get together some sort of a joint communiqué that would create a code of conduct, if you would, for how the two sides would resolve this problem and, so far, the Chinese have simply refused because they want this to be a bilateral thing because, frankly, they want to pick off the countries one at a time and they don't want them getting united together.

And I think what we're starting to see right now is some of the U.S.'s old allies in the region. I'm talking about the Philippines. I'm talking about a newer ally, Vietnam at this point, and some of these other countries are looking to the U.S. to maybe try to help them against what they perceive as the bully, China. And I think that's going to dominate - it's definitely dominated the ASEAN meetings today and I would be quite surprised if it was not a very contentious issue tomorrow at the East Asian Summit meeting, as well.

HEADLEE: Freelance reporter Michael Sullivan joining us from Bangkok. Thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome.


HEADLEE: Coming up, during the election, you probably saw more than a few impassioned tweets and Facebook posts from friends with strong political opinions, but you might have also seen something more serious, flagrantly racist tweets that cropped up on social media sites after the president's reelection. We'll talk about the privacy issues involved and when comments cross the line next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.