Washington/Yangon - President Barack Obama later in November will become the first US leader to visit Myanmar, marking the strongest international endorsement so far of the fragile democratic transition in the once-isolated Southeast Asian country after decades of military rule.
Obama will travel to Myanmar as part of a November 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will include stops in Thailand and Cambodia, the White House said on Thursday as it confirmed his first international trip since he won a second term in Tuesday's election.
He is going ahead with the trip despite recent sectarian violence in western Myanmar, which has drawn concern from the United States and European Union.
UN human rights investigators have criticised the quasi-civilian government's handling of the strife between Buddhists and minority Muslims, and some Myanmar exiles see Obama's trip as premature before political reforms have been consolidated.
The visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting US president, will give Obama a chance to meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to encourage the “ongoing democratic transition,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Suu Kyi spent years in detention under the military as the symbol of the pro-democracy movement and was elected to parliament in April.
Obama's presence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will highlight what his administration sees as a first-term foreign policy achievement and a development that could help counter China's influence in a strategically important region.
Washington takes some credit for a carrot-and-stick approach that pushed Myanmar's generals toward democratic change and led to Thein Sein taking office as reformist president in 2011.
Obama will be in Myanmar on November 19, according to a senior government source in Yangon.
While marking a milestone in US efforts to promote reform in Myanmar, he also risks criticism for rewarding the new government too soon, especially after security forces failed to prevent bloody ethnic violence in the west of the country.
Some 89 people were killed in clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas, according to the latest official toll covering the last 10 days of October. Many thousands more have been displaced by the violence.
The US Campaign for Burma, an exile group, said Obama's trip could “undermine the democracy activists and ethnic minorities,” but that if the president was intent on going, he should broaden his agenda to include meetings with the still-powerful military and an address to parliament.
A senior administration official said Obama, who will also speak to civil society groups, was “acutely aware” of concerns about human rights, ethnic violence and political prisoners in Myanmar and would address those issues during his visit.
The United States eased sanctions on Myanmar this year in recognition of the political and economic changes under way, and many US companies are looking at starting operations in the country, located between China and India, which has abundant resources and low-cost labor.
In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce US influence across Asia in what has been dubbed a policy “pivot” toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Myanmar grew close to China during decades of isolation, reinforced by Western sanctions over its poor human rights record, but it now seeking to expand relations with the West.
Obama met Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, on her visit to the United States in September. Thein Sein was also in the United States to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York, but the two leaders did not meet.
US Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, who is active on Myanmar issues, said Obama's trip could be “the most significant step” in support of democracy there.
But he said: “There is still much more to be done. Too many political prisoners remain locked up, ethnic violence must be stopped, and not all necessary political reforms have been put in place.”
Obama will also be in Southeast Asia to attend meetings in Cambodia centred on an annual summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which is usually extended to take in leaders of partner countries.
Preliminary details for this year show the event will run from November 15 to November 20. The Cambodian government has said Obama will be in the capital, Phnom Penh, on November 18. The White House has yet to release a detailed itinerary.
The heads of government of China, Japan, Russia and other countries are also expected in Cambodia for the meetings.
Obama will also visit Thailand while in Asia, the White House said. - Reuters