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Barack Obama yesterday flexed US power in Asia on a regional tour that will make history when he lands in Myanmar, calling on its leaders to step up their startling political reform drive.
The US president touched down in Air Force One in Bangkok, sending a message that relationships like the six-decades-old treaty alliance with Thailand will form the bedrock of US diplomacy as the region warily eyes a rising China.
Today, he becomes the first sitting US president to visit formerly isolated Myanmar. He is expected to raise the issue of ethnic tensions, when he meets Myanmarese President Thein Sein, reports Reuters.
"In addition to the democratic reforms, we've been concerned about the continued ethnic conflicts in Burma," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters accompanying Obama aboard Air Force One.
Then, in a stark illustration of how far Myanmar has come, the US leader will stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of the visit, Obama said his landmark visit to Myanmar is an acknowledgement of the democratic transition underway but not an endorsement of the country's government.
Obama's words were aimed at countering critics who say his trip to the country also known as Burma is premature.
The president says his goal in visiting Myanmar is to highlight the steps the Asian nation still needs to take. He says he also wants to congratulate the people of Myanmar for having "opened the door" to being a country that respects human rights and political freedom.
"President Thein Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction," he told a press conference. "But I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma's arrived," he added.
After a 19-hour journey from Washington, Obama first paid homage to Thailand's ancient history with a private tour of the Wat Pho temple which is famed for a huge, golden statue of a reclining Buddha.
"What a peaceful place," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president, who remarked that they were having a "treat" because the normally crowded tourist attraction had been cleared for their visit.
Then Obama called at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok for an audience with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, seen as a symbol of continuity for a kingdom with a turbulent political past.
Obama and Clinton greeted and shook hands with the frail monarch, who turns 85 next month.
After talks with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra focusing on trade, regional politics, counter-narcotics issues and terrorism, Obama held a joint press conference with her.
His visit to Asia comes just 12 days after he won re-election. The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.
The stop in Myanmar will be rich in symbolism, not least when he gives a speech at Yangon University, where restive students stoked revolt repeatedly over five decades of military rule.
The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government -- albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.
The US, however, continues to call for the release of scores of political prisoners still in Myanmar's jails, as well as an end to sectarian bloodshed between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Today, Obama will also fly to Cambodia, and a likely tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.
On the Asean summit's sidelines, Obama will meet China's outgoing premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, whose relations with Beijing have frayed because of rival territorial claims.