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Discussion of democracy recedes on Obama's Asia trip

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 9:03 p.m.
Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama toasts Malaysia's King Abdul Halim of Kedah (front 2nd L) during the Malaysian State Dinner at Istana Negara Palace in Kuala Lumpur April 26, 2014. At left is Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak and at right is Queen Haminah. REUTERS/Larry Downing (MALAYSIA - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The deep fissures in Malaysia's political system are forcing President Obama to spell out the least-defined aspect of his Asia outreach strategy — how much the United States will use its renewed focus on the region to press for democratic reforms and protections for human rights.

Although Obama tackled the issue of democracy in Asia during a historic visit to Burma in November 2012, it has faded in prominence when compared with economic engagement and security cooperation. But the issue remains a critical part of the administration's engagement with Southeast Asia, in part because several emerging nations are wrestling with how to transition to democracy now that they have advanced economically.

For Southeast Asian countries with relatively young populations compared with Northeast Asia's heavyweights — Japan, China and South Korea — that is particularly important.

As he works to foster ties to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that has traditionally been closer to China than the United States, Obama must balance his desire to praise Prime Minister Najib Razak with the recognition that his government has used the legal system to sideline its political allies and limit free expression in the media.

“What do we want from the president? To see Malaysia for what it is,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, an electoral reform advocate who will meet with Obama on Sunday evening. “If they are glowing about our democracy and modernization, they are undermining the work that we do and encouraging them to carry on with this oppressive conduct.”

Obama's aides have touted Sunday's session with members of civil society, which will include 10 activists and is scheduled to last 15 minutes, as an example of how the president will use his visit to promote American values.

“Of course, we've had some concerns at times over restrictions on civil society,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday, “so he'll have an opportunity to not just speak to that but also to hear from some of these individual leaders.”

But many Malaysians have questioned why the president will not meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently convicted for the second time in his political career under Malaysia's colonial-era sodomy law. National security adviser Susan Rice will meet with him instead.

Rhodes defended the administration's decision to have Rice meet with Anwar rather than the president, saying Saturday that Obama “doesn't frequently meet with opposition leaders when he visits other countries.” But Rhodes said that by the end of the state visit, “I don't think there will be any question as to where he stands on those issues.”

“We support deepening of democratic practices in Malaysia,” he said, adding that Obama will raise the issue in his public remarks and likely in his bilateral meeting with Najib.

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