President Barack Obama will meet leaders of Southeast Asian nations, including Myanmar, next month in a high-level affirmation of Washington’s new policy of engaging the military-ruled country despite its dismal human rights record.
The Nov. 15 meeting between Obama and leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will take place on the sidelines of an annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs Scot Marciel said Saturday.
Myanmar’s Prime Minister, Thein Sein, will attend the meeting, which marks the 32nd anniversary of Washington’s relations with ASEAN, senior Myanmar diplomat Min Lwin told The Associated Press in Manila.
The junta chief, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, typically shuns official meetings outside Myanmar.
The talks are to be the highest-level contact between Myanmar and the U.S. in decades.
Officials have not said if Obama will meet privately with Thein Sein. The last U.S. president to meet a Myanmar head of state was Lyndon B. Johnson, who held talks with then Prime Minister Ne Win in September 1966 during a state visit to Washington, according to Richard Mei, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Myanmar.
Under Obama, Washington has reversed the Bush administration’s policy of shunning Myanmar in favor of direct talks with the Southeast Asian country that has been ruled by the military since 1962.
Myanmar welcomes the shift in U.S. policy, Min Lwin said, describing the change as “positive.”
Marciel and Min Lwin were in Manila along with other senior ASEAN diplomats to finalize the agenda for Obama’s meeting with ASEAN leaders. The talks will focus on trade, energy, health, climate change, food security, disaster response and security issues, Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Enrique Manalo said.
“What we’re trying to do is to step up and increase our engagement with ASEAN,” Marciel said.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo has said ASEAN welcomes the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement with Myanmar, adding that Southeast Asian governments have continued talking with the junta while constantly prodding it to move toward democracy.
“All of us talk with Myanmar,” he said. “There is no harm in talking.”
ASEAN has faced a barrage of criticism in past years over its failure to coax democratic reforms from the junta or to win freedom for detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and some 2,000 other political prisoners.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, mostly under house arrest.
Despite their new approach to Myanmar, also known as Burma, U.S. officials have said that tough sanctions against the junta will remain until talks with its generals result in long-demanded democratic reforms.
Seven ASEAN member states -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- belong to APEC, which includes the U.S. and other Western nations. The three ASEAN members not in APEC are Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.