The country long has oriented itself toward China, but the easing of sanctions gives American businesses a chance to gain a foothold there. It's also an opportunity for the Obama administration to show other nations in the region, and elsewhere in the world, that there are benefits to aligning with the U.S.
Still, there's little denying that history has been a draw for Obama's team when it comes to its dealings with Myanmar. That's led to criticism from some human rights groups that say Obama's visit is premature given that the country continues to hold political prisoners and has been unable to stem some ethnic violence.
"This trip risks being an ill-timed presidential pat on the back for a regime that has looked the other way as violence rages, destroying villages and communities just in the last few weeks," said Suzanne Nossel, the U.S.-based director of Amnesty International.
But the White House believes that "if we want to promote human rights and promote American values, we intend to do so through engagement," Rhodes said Saturday as Obama flew to Asia.
He said it was important for Obama to convey the message about "the type of action we'd like to see locked in, in Burma as it relates to political reform, as it relates to economic reform, and national reconciliation."
Obama's other stops in the region also underscore the potential pitfalls of going all-in in Asia.
Thailand's 2006 coup, which led to the ouster of the prime minister, strained relations with the U.S. and raised questions in Washington about the stability of its longtime regional ally. Cambodia, where Obama's visit also marks the first by a U.S. president, has a dismal human rights record.
White House officials have emphasized that Obama is visiting Cambodia because it is hosting the East Asia Summit, an annual meeting the U.S. now attends. Aides say the president will voice his human rights concerns during his meeting with Hun Sen, Cambodia's long-serving prime minister.
Still, human rights groups fear Obama's visit will be seen within Cambodia as an affirmation of the prime minister and a sign to opposition groups that the U.S. stands with the government, not with them.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also traveling to Thailand where she was going to join Obama. Clinton then was to fly to Myanmar with Obama on Air Force One. It will be the last joint trip for the president and his secretary of state, the once presidential rival who went on to become Obama's peripatetic chief diplomat. Clinton is planning on leaving the administration.
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