US President Barack Obama styles himself as America’s first Pacific president. Yesterday he introduced both cultural elements and a formal meeting to reaffirm the importance of Thailand – the US’s oldest treaty ally – in its strategic “pivot to Asia”.
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Making Thailand the first stop in his first post-re-election tour was “no accident”, he told a press conference at Government House, emphasising the importance of one of the United States’ oldest allies, and of the Asia-Pacific, to the future of world security and prosperity. The visit, he stressed, was meant to boost political and economic ties with countries in this region.
Speaking after a welcome speech by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Obama greeted the audience by saying “sawaddee krub” and hailed the prime minister’s English as “much better than my Thai”. Then he went on to hail Thailand’s commitment to democracy.
Earlier, Obama began his visit to the Kingdom at the royal monastery of Wat Pho, which US Ambassador Kristie Kenney dubbed the most beautiful temple in the world.
In March 2008, Unesco listed Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, on its Memory of the World register. Its Thai traditional massage sculptures are known all over the world. The temple – its official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangkla-rarm – was the first public university in the Kingdom and a centre of knowledge for many subjects. Each day, about 10,000 tourists visit the temple, half of them foreigners, according to deputy abbot Phra Udornkanarak, who guided Obama on the temple tour.
After the temple visit, His Majesty the King granted President Obama a Royal audience at Siriraj Hospital.
“We felt it was very important to begin this trip by visiting a US ally,” Ben Rhodes, deputy US national security adviser, told reporters travelling to Asia with Obama on Air Force One. “Allies are the cornerstone of our re-balancing effort in Asia,” he said, referring to Thailand. The visit also celebrated the countries’ long diplomatic ties, whose 180th anniversary is celebrated next year.
Yingluck took a break from the Asean summit in Phnom Penh yesterday and flew back to the capital to greet Obama and meet with him to discuss various issues of strategic cooperation.
A formal welcome ceremony was held at Government House before the meeting of the two leaders and a dinner. The dinner featured spicy salmon salad, crispy noodles, somtam (spicy papaya salad), grilled chicken, Northeastern-style sausage, soup with beef balls and vegetables, green curry with beef, salted yolk with shredded pork, fried vegetables with crab meat, grilled prawns with tamarind sauce, and fragrant jasmine rice. Dessert included Thai fruits, sweetmeat with coconut cream, fruit-shaped marchpane, and Thong Ek sweetmeat.
Later, Obama met and greeted United States Embassy personnel at Chulalong-korn University.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also arrived in Bangkok from Singapore to join the president’s trip to Thailand and later Myanmar. She said the US president had spent considerable time in Southeast Asia now, because so much of what would become the history of the 21st century was being written here.
After Thailand and Myanmar, Obama will visit Cambodia for the Asean and East Asia summits, before leaving for Washington tomorrow evening.
Yingluck’s government announced earlier the intention to join a regional free-trade scheme, the Trans Pacific Partner-ship (TPP). It has prompted strong criticism from academic and civic groups concerned about possible damage to the local economy as well as allowing too much US economic influence. Anti-free trade group FTA Watch and local activists yesterday held a brief protest in front of Don Mueang Airport, expressing their disagreement with the TPP.