BANGKOK - President Barack Obama flexed US power in Asia Sunday, launching a regional tour that will make history when he lands in Myanmar to encourage its leaders to quicken a startling political reform drive.
Obama 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.
He will become the first sitting US president to visit formerly isolated Myanmar, on Monday, and will laud President Thein Sein for ending a dark era of junta rule, but also prod him to go much further towards genuine democracy.
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.
Later Monday, Obama will 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.
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 the kingdom, which has a turbulent political past.
Obama and Clinton greeted and shook hands with the frail monarch, who turns 85 next month.
His visit to Asia, coming just 12 days after he won re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast emerging region he sees as vital to its future.
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.
Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.
But officials say that Obama will encourage the regime to double down on more reform, and that his influence could be important at a crucial moment in Myanmar’s emergence from decades of isolation and repression.