President Obama wraps up his visit to Southeast Asia today, which included a historic trip to Myanmar (also called Burma). The president’s tour of the region — his fifth in four years — largely went off without a hitch, except for one scare when his security detail mistook large but harmless water lizards for man-eating Komodo dragons. Latitude News wanted to see how the local press was covering Obama’s trip. You can read their reactions below.
- The president’s visit to Myanmar was the first ever by a sitting U.S. president. Many observers took it as a reward for the political and economic reforms made last year by the repressive country’s secretive military junta. Obama gave a speech at Rangoon University, which the Burmese news magazine Irrawaddy describes as a “hotbed of dissenter activities in Burma for decades.” Obama inspired many in the audience by expressing solidarity for the Burmese people. “That really moved me,” said a Burmese filmmaker who is shooting a documentary about the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “For the president of one of the world’s most powerful and democratic countries to encourage the Burmese like that is quite amazing.” But the president angered nationalists in the crowd, including one member of parliament, when he used the word “Rohingya” to describe a persecuted Muslim minority locked in a bitter sectarian struggle with Burma’s military. The government prefers to call them “Bengalis” and considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
- Citizens of Phnom Penh, Cambodia attempted to use Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit as a lightening rod for a local cause: land-grabbing. About 200 Cambodians crowded onto a sandy lakeside beach — once their home before developers purchased and began filling the lake — and raised huge signs with the words “SOS” and the faces of U.S. leaders. The Phnom Penh Post reports that Chhay Nem, who had recently been jailed for a similar protest, was in attendance. “I will not fear another arrest,” said Nem. “I am not breaking the law.” Police peacefully faced off with protestors, but the police presence had one protestor crying foul: “Deploying hundreds of forces to prevent villagers to go outside their village is to reveal that freedom of expression is limited in Cambodia.”
- In the opinion pages of the Bangkok Post, member of parliament and former diplomat Kobsak Chutikul compares the wooing of South East Asia by the U.S. on the one hand — and China on the other — to the recent American presidential elections. Burma, by his lights, is Virginia: “normally solidly in the red column…but still a toss-up needing more consolidation and leg work.” Cambodia is North Carolina. And his native Thailand? That critical swing state Ohio. “In the context of Asia, the demographics currently favour the United States. But inciting old animosities in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India against China could prove to be a counter-productive strategy in the longer term, and could lead to a popular backlash against what might come to be perceived as a “dirty tricks” campaign to turn a potential flag-bearer of Asian pride into an also-ran.” Chutikul’s implores President Obama, who he argues has failed to live up to his promises of four years ago, to “really be Obama…unencumbered by bureaucracies and the reams of communiques, talking points and position papers; ignoring strident lobbies; rising above dogma and the ticking of boxes.” Otherwise? The message is that the Beijing-Bangkok axis looks rather tempting.
- Meanwhile in China the Weibosphere (China’s equivalent of the Twitterati) was alight with comments about the kiss between two Nobel laureates – the president of the U.S. and Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But here too there was suspicion about the subtext of that kiss. As @Xin Gan Xiao Bao (Sweet heat) observed, Obama’s visit “drove a wedge between China and Burma,” while @Ai Xin Jue Luo Zhi Qiang asked: “Will China be out of the game?”