(NEW YORK) MintPress – The U.S. may still be at war in Afghanistan and increasingly involved in hot spots in the Middle East and North Africa, but on his first overseas trip since re-election, President Barack Obama will be visiting Asia.
His top national security team is already moving ahead with the administration’s so-called strategic “pivot” to Asia-Pacific in a bid to counter China’s growing dominance there.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific Adm. Samuel Locklear traveled to Australia at the beginning of this week for two days of talks with that country’s leaders.
Speaking after the annual Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) meeting in Perth on Wednesday, Clinton said that the two countries should work together to ensure that China’s rise remained peaceful.
“We welcome a strong and prosperous China that plans a constructive and greater role in world affairs, but we also want to see China act in very transparent ways that respect international norms and standards (that) follows international law, protects the fundamental freedoms and human rights of its people, of all people.
“The Pacific is big enough for all of us,” Clinton added.
Panetta and Clinton will now travel to Southeast Asia ahead of Obama’s Nov. 17-20 trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
Clean sweep in Cambodia
It is the first visit to the country by an American president. Although the two nations established full diplomatic relations in 1993, the U.S. suspended bilateral assistance to the Cambodian government after heavy factional fighting in 1997, during which Prime Minister Hun Sen deposed First Prime Minister Ranariddh. Many U.S. citizens and other expatriates were evacuated as a result and, in the subsequent weeks and months, more than 40,000 Cambodian refugees fled to Thailand.
The events of 1997 also left a long list of uninvestigated human rights abuses, including dozens of extrajudicial killings. Since then, humanitarian aid from the U.S. to Cambodia has been provided mainly through non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Last week, a Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman said the government will round up the capital’s street beggars and lock them in a “social affairs” center during Obama’s trip.
The spokesman told the Phnom Penh Post, “If the leaders from across ASEAN and the world see beggars and children on the street, they might speak negatively to the government.”
David Harding, deputy director of the NGO Friends International, who also spoke to the paper, said “These places are not adequate for people to live in a humane way … so we’re working very hard to create other options.”
Elsewhere in the city, about 100 residents, mostly women, are protesting outside the U.S. embassy in the hope that Obama will help secure the release of imprisoned activists Yorm Bopha and Tim Sopmony. The police have threatened the demonstrators with arrest.
Meanwhile, more than 100 families fear eviction from their homes near Phnom Penh International Airport to make room for a security fence.
“I have heard a rumor that the authorities won’t do this now, “ said one woman, “but we don’t believe rumors until we receive an official letter in our hands.”
Bargaining on reform in Burma
Obama will also become the first American president to visit the once ostracized nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma. The United States initially imposed broad sanctions on the country after the military crackdown in 1988 and the regime’s refusal to honor the election results of the 1990 People’s Assembly election.
Subsequent repression, including the crackdown on peaceful protesters in September 2007, further strained the relationship.
But following the November 2010 release from house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other signs of liberalization the following year, Washington began improving its ties with Burma.
In the wake of the release of hundreds of political prisoners and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April 2012, the United States has appointed a full ambassador and suspended sanctions.
While there, Obama will meet with both President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that Obama intended to “speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.”
In its latest report on Myanmar, however, Human Rights Watch maintained that the government, dominated by the military and former generals, has still failed to seriously address the dire human rights situation in the country.
While it commended recent progress, it added, “However, hundreds of political prisoners remain, ethnic civil war and inter-ethnic conflict has escalated, and Burmese security forces continue to use forced labor and commit extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, among other abuses.”
On Tuesday, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization called on Obama to address the systematic persecution of Burma’s Rohingya minority.
In a letter to President Obama, CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote:
“I congratulate you on your recent re-election and look forward to the strengthening of our nation’s economy and security. A significant part of America’s strength is derived from our defense of human rights worldwide.
“I therefore respectfully request that you speak out clearly and forcefully in defense of the human rights and physical security of Rohingya Muslims during your upcoming visit to Myanmar.
“While we all welcome Myanmar’s recent move to democracy, our nation must not turn a blind eye to what is one of the worst examples of human rights violations in recent history.
“I urge you to make any upgrade in the status of Myanmar as a trading or political partner contingent on its government’s willingness to recognize the rights of Rohingya Muslims and to protect them and their property from harm.”
The Rohingya people are denied citizenship and land rights, despite having lived there for centuries; hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and thousands displaced by what appears to be systematic ethnic-cleansing backed by government elements.
International activists are also meeting this week with senior White House officials to press the president, while courting his counterparts in Asia, not to compromise on human rights.