White House defends president's trip to repressive countries

The White House has launched a full-court press to defend President Obama's historic trip to Asia next week amid sharp criticism from lawmakers and human rights advocates.

The administration is framing Obama's trip to Burma — the first by a sitting U.S. president — as a way to show other repressive regimes that the United States is ready to meet them halfway if they make progress on democracy and human rights. But some critics say the trip is premature, while others argue that the president's equally historic trip to nearby Cambodia sends a conflicting message at a time the human rights situation there is deteriorating.

“By taking a strong and public stand in support of human rights and democracy during this first-time visit by a U.S. President to Cambodia, your words would encourage and embolden the Cambodian people and send a clear message to the entire region about American values and expectations, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring,” a dozen lawmakers wrote to the president recently. “However, failure to speak out will serve to undermine America's narrative of support for Asian democrats.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and seven House Democrats.

Separately, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee panel on human rights told The Hill in an email that the president should raise the issue of ethnic and communal violence in Burma and Cambodia's shady record on corruption and sex trafficking.

“Sadly, the Obama Administration in his first term reduced human rights to a low priority,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who is running for the chairmanship of the committee. “The Administration has essentially been AWOL where basic human rights have been concerned. Let’s hope in its second term the Administration will finally begin to advocate assertively for human rights around the world, and start with this visit to Burma and Cambodia.”

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The White House confirmed Thursday that the president will not deliver a speech during his time in Cambodia, which is hosting summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit on Monday and Tuesday. Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, told reporters in a call detailing the president's schedule that Obama “of course will raise our concerns about the need to respect human rights in Cambodia” in meetings with the country's authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has been in power since 1985.

That's not good enough, said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He said the situation in Cambodia was now even more concerning than that in Burma.

“They can all do their business — but they can also take 10 minutes to make a statement that (would show Cambodians) that the world cares and that it's possible to confront a very unpopular government,” Adams told The Hill. “You'd think after the Arab Spring they'd want to be on the right side of history here.”

The debate comes amid reports that Cambodian authorities are forcing residents who live near the airport where Obama will land on Monday to remove SOS slogans and giant portraits of the president from their rooftops. The residents are protesting land seizures by the government, which has allegedly been confiscating rural land and urban dwellings to sell to developers in order to fund Hun Sen's regime.

The White House has also had to defend the president's trip to Burma, coming right in the wake of the resumption of full diplomatic ties and the lifting of decades-old sanctions despite continued ethnic violence and political repression. The NSC's human rights director, Samantha Power, was also on the call and defended the trip after making the case for rewarding Burma in a White House blog entry last week.

“From the beginning of the administration, the president has signaled an openness to engagement with governments that have not had a relationship with the U.S,” provided they take steps toward reform, Rhodes said. “We see this visit as building on the progress that the Burmese government has made but they are on the beginning of a journey toward democracy and human rights.”

Danny Russel, the National Security Council's director for Asia, told reporters that Burmese leaders have “put their feet on right path” and “we want to make progress irreversible.”

“This is not a victory celebration; this is a barn raising.”

The president's first stop will be in Thailand, where he will meet Sunday with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, with whom he's expected to hold a press conference. The president then heads to Burma on Monday for meetings with President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of civil society. 

Obama will also deliver a speech touching on human rights at the University of Rangoon, a hotbed of pro-democracy student protests in the 1980s, before heading to Cambodia. In Cambodia, Rhodes said, he is expected to meet with outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, as well as leaders of the countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc.

The White House said the president's participation in the two summits will cement the United States' pivot to Asia. Russel described the meetings as offering a “dialogue that can't be had in other forums,” notably on global security issues facing the region, “especially competing territorial claims between China and other nations that risk destabilizing the area.”

He added that the focus isn't on containing China, however.

The pivot “is about U.S. interests, not about China,” Russel said. “The peaceful rise of other countries, including China, contributes to the common good.”