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Obama Begins Asia Tour

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama has begun a tour of three Southeast Asian countries that will include an historic visit to Burma.

On November 18, Obama landed in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, for what is his first foreign trip since being reelected to a second term in office on November 6.

The U.S. president met with Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital, where the 84-year old monarch has taken up permanent residence since 2009.

Obama also held talks with Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

"We welcome the United States' renewed focus on Southeast Asia and believe our bilateral partnership can help contribute to regional peace, security, and prosperity," Shinawatra told reporters.

After the meeting, Shinawatra announced Thailand's intention to enter negotiations on joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP is a free trade pact that the United States is currently negotiating with 10 countries -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Earlier this week, the defense ministers of Thailand and the United States signed an agreement on strengthening military cooperation.

On November 19, Obama is due to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, which for decades had been ruled by a military junta until March 2011.

Obama's schedule includes visits to Burma's President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Speaking in Bangkok on November 18, Obama said his visit to Burma is an acknowledgement of the progress that has been made on a democratic transition there but was not an endorsement of the country's government.

"When I address the Burmese public as the first [U.S.] president who's ever visited that country, what they will hear from me is that we congratulate them on having opened the door to a country that respects human rights and respects political freedom and is saying that it's committed towards a more democratic government," Obama said. "But what you will also hear is that the country has long way to go."

Western leaders have welcomed moves by the Burmese government to free hundreds of political prisoners and hold the country's first contested election following decades of military rule.

Obama plans to conclude his Asia trip in Cambodia, where on November 19 and November 20 he is due to attend an East Asia Summit.

That summit gathers together leaders from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian nations who are meeting this weekend along with eight other countries.

Washington is keen to strengthen military and trade ties with countries that are looking to the United States to help balance China's rising power, especially in the South China Sea, where competing claims of sovereignty threaten global trade routes.

With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and AFP
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