YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — President Barack Obama will make a groundbreaking visit later this month to Myanmar, an official said Thursday, following through with his policy of rapprochement to encourage democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
The Myanmar official speaking from the capital, Naypyitaw, said Thursday that security for a visit on Nov. 18 or 19 had been prepared, but the schedule was not final. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to give information to the media.
The official said Obama would meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as government officials including reformist President Thein Sein.
It would be the first-ever visit to Myanmar by an American president. U.S. officials have not yet announced any plans for a visit, which would come less than two weeks after Obama's election to a second term.
Obama's administration has sought to encourage the recent democratic progress under Thein Sein by easing sanctions applied against Myanmar's previous military regime.
Officials in nearby Thailand and Cambodia have already informally announced plans for visits by Obama that same week. Cambodia is hosting a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Thailand is a longtime close U.S. ally.
The visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, would be the culmination of a dramatic turnaround in relations with Washington as the country has shifted from five decades of ruinous military rule and shaken off the pariah status it had earned through its bloody suppression of democracy.
Obama's ending of the long-standing U.S. isolation of Myanmar's generals has played a part in coaxing them into political reforms that have unfolded with surprising speed in the past year. The U.S. has appointed a full ambassador and suspended sanctions to reward Myanmar for political prisoner releases and the election of Nobel laureate Suu Kyi to parliament.
From Myanmar's point of view, the lifting of sanctions is essential for boosting a lagging economy that was hurt not only by sanctions that curbed exports and foreign investment, but also by what had been a protectionist, centralized approach. Thein Sein's government has initiated major economic reforms in addition to political ones.
A procession of senior diplomats and world leaders have traveled to Myanmar, stopping both in the remote, opulent capital city, which was built by the former ruling junta, and at Suu Kyi's dilapidated lakeside villa in the main city of Yangon, where she spent 15 years under house arrest. New Zealand announced Thursday that Prime Minister John Key would visit Myanmar after attending the regional meetings in Cambodia.
The most senior U.S. official to visit was Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last December became the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to Myanmar in 56 years.
The Obama administration regards the political changes in Myanmar as a marquee achievement in its foreign policy, and one that could dilute the influence of China in a country that has a strategic location between South and Southeast Asia, regions of growing economic importance.
But exiled Myanmar activists and human rights groups are likely to criticize an Obama visit as premature, rewarding Thein Sein before his political and economic reforms have truly taken root. The military — still dominant and implicated in rights abuses — has failed to prevent vicious outbreaks of communal violence in the west of the country that have left scores dead.