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Obama set for historic visit to Myanmar

1st US president to make the trip

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after his reelection, President Obama will become the first US president to visit the once-pariah nation of Myanmar, drawing attention to the country’s shift to democracy and highlighting what his administration regards as a marquee foreign policy achievement.

Obama will also travel to Cambodia, a first for a US president as well, and to Thailand during the Nov. 17-20 trip. In Cambodia, the president will attend the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh and meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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The symbolic highlight of the trip, no doubt, is Obama’s stop in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a country emerging from five decades of ruinous military rule. While there, Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and also with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, White House said.

While the trip places new focus on Obama’s foreign policy and to American attention to the Asian and Pacific region, it also comes as Obama begins sensitive negotiations with congressional leaders about how to avoid looming tax increases and steep cuts in defense and domestic spending.

Obama ended the longstanding US isolation of Myanmar’s generals, which has played a part in coaxing them into political reforms that have unfolded with surprising speed in the past year. The United States has appointed a full ambassador and suspended sanctions to reward Myanmar for political prisoner releases and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament.

In a statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama intended to ‘‘speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.’’

A procession of senior diplomats and world leaders have traveled to the country, stopping both in the remote, opulent capital city Naypyitaw, built by the former ruling junta, and at Suu Kyi’s dilapidated lakeside villa in the main city Yangon, where she spent 15 years under house arrest.

The most senior US official to visit previously was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December.

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The most senior US official to visit previously is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in December became the first US secretary of state to travel to Myanmar in 56 years.

The Obama administration regards the political changes in Myanmar as a top foreign policy achievement, and one that could dilute the influence of China in a country that has a strategic location between South Asia and Southeast Asia, regions of growing economic importance.

But exiled Myanmar activists and human rights groups will probably criticize an Obama visit as premature, rewarding Thein Sein before his political and economic reforms have been consolidated. The military is still dominant and implicated in rights abuses. It has failed to prevent vicious outbreaks of communal violence in the west of the country that have left scores dead.

While no US president has ever visited Cambodia or Myanmar, Thailand is one of America’s oldest allies in Asia and has been a stop for US commanders in chief since the mid-1960s.

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