SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama called for the release of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he met the country's prime minister at a meeting with other Southeast Asian leaders today in Singapore.
Obama did not speak or shake hands with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein at the meeting in Singapore's Shangri-la hotel with the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the first with a U.S. president.
He joined the ASEAN tradition of linking arms at the start of the meeting, looking a bit bemused, before the leaders sat down around a circular table for the talks.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama reiterated his call for Suu Kyi to be freed, although a statement to be issued after the meeting does not demand her release or that of other political prisoners ahead of elections in the military-ruled country next year.
The meeting in Singapore marked the first time in history a U.S. leader had met with his counterparts in the 42-year-old grouping, founded at the height of the Vietnam War. It took place after an Asia-Pacific summit.
For the first time in decades, the United States and ASEAN are singing from the same hymn book when it comes to Myanmar.
Washington has recently taken a two-prong approach to the former Burma, engaging the junta while keeping sanctions on the resource-rich nation that shares borders with India and China.
Guided Back To Democracy
For years, ASEAN was heavily criticized in the West for its own fruitless engagement policy with Myanmar's generals. Now it is hoping that with U.S. support, Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, can be guided back to democracy.
The draft statement said the leaders hoped the new policy "would contribute to broad political and economic reforms."
"We also underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and that the general elections to be held in Myanmar in 2010 must be conducted in a free, fair, inclusive and transparent manner in order to be credible to the international community."
Suu Kyi, who has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years and remains under house arrest, has been allowed to meet U.S. diplomats and last week expressed hopes those contacts would lead to democratic reforms.
By refusing to deal with ASEAN because of Myanmar, the United States has limited its involvement on a range of issues in Southeast Asia, said Ernie Bower, Southeast Asia Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"They [the Obama administration] are not allowing Burma policy to wag the dog of ASEAN policy," he said.
"China has been greatly enjoying U.S. disengagement in Southeast Asia for the past 10 years, while the Chinese themselves have been deeply engaged."
Obama would be the first president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 to even be in the same room as a top Myanmar leader.
The administration of Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a boy and has pronounced himself America's "first Pacific president," has taken renewed interest in ASEAN, home to 570 million people with combined economic output of $1.1 trillion.
Washington routinely sent lower level officials to ASEAN meetings under former President George W. Bush, in part at least because a junta member was part of the ASEAN pageantry.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Obama to raise "the lack of democratic change in Burma, restraints on freedom of expression across the region, widespread impunity for rights violations, and a weak regional human rights institution."
ASEAN recently created a human rights commission, which has been criticized for lacking any power to enforce its judgments.
The draft declaration said Obama would express support for the commission and invite them to visit the United States next year to "consult with international experts."