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Not since 1998 has a top American official paid a visit to Malaysia, and President Barack Obama may have some second thoughts about his current tour of the nation, which is still reeling from the disappearance of Flight 370.
With the situation between Russia and the Ukraine growing more troubling and violent by the day, and with the Philippines on his agenda this week, the president couldn’t ask for a more unsettling foreign itinerary.
The precarious political scene in Malaysia requires some careful navigation, and Obama is finding it a challenge to tiptoe around some of the country’s burning issues, most prominently on human rights and the beleaguered opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who the president refused to meet.
To some human rights activists, Ibrahim can be compared to Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and “if the president can meet with her … it is a little odd that he wouldn’t meet with Anwar,” one activist charged.
Obama said that his not meeting with Ibrahim is not an indication of his lack of concern for him and his issues. “There are a lot of people I don’t meet with and opposition leaders I don’t meet with,” he told the press last week. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about them.” Ibrahim is a former deputy prime minister whose acquittal of sodomy charges two years ago were recently revoked by a court, and he may be soon meeting with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Later in the day, the president visited other parts of the country and a relative calm prevailed—unlike the tension that occurred in 1998 when Vice President Al Gore toured the country. The last U.S. leader to visit Malaysia was President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
More Pacific hot water awaits Obama when he arrives in the Philippines on Monday, and at the top of the agenda there will be the signing of a 10-year pact permitting the U.S. to use military bases, much like they did in Subic Bay until 1992.
How the move will be received by China is questionable because the islands and patrol of the East and South China seas are bones of contention.
The amount of concern from China is countered by the welcome that appears to be eagerly extended by the Philippine government, especially in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and the immediate and effective response of the U.S. to the devastation.
It’s a bit naive to believe that this pact is not a step toward minimizing China’s control of the territory and a wedge by the U.S. to get back in the game in Southeast Asia.
As always with Obama’s tours abroad, this is far more than a sightseeing trip.