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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Barack Obama said Sunday that he had raised the need for improved human rights in Malaysia with the country’s prime minister, but pushed back against suggestions that his failure to meet with a top opposition leader means he is not concerned.
Human rights groups have been urging Obama to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim while Obama is in the country as part of his four-nation Asia tour. Instead, Obama is sending national security adviser Susan Rice to meet Anwar on Monday.
Obama cited freedom of the press, human rights and civil liberties as issues that he said are always on the agenda when he travels the world. He downplayed the fact that a meeting with Anwar wasn’t on his schedule.
“The fact that I haven’t met Mr. Anwar in and of itself is not indicative of our lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with and opposition leaders that I don’t meet with,” he said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak after the two met privately. “That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about them.”
Obama, who met with Najib during a historic, two-day visit to Malaysia, defended the government’s handling of the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. He also said Russia will soon be hit with new sanctions because President Vladimir Putin’s government has “not lifted a finger” to help diffuse tensions in Ukraine.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was recently convicted for the second time on sodomy charges that the U.S. and international human rights groups have challenged as politically motivated. He presents the most potent political threat to Najib, whose popularity has declined over the past two elections.
Obama said Najib has made progress on human rights in his country and would be the first to acknowledge having more work to do to improve the climate. Obama said he shared with Najib his own view that countries will be better off in the long run if they respect the rule of law and basic freedoms — “even when it drives you crazy, even when it’s inconvenient.”
The United States still has work to do on these issues, too, Obama added.
In his own defense, Najib said he and Obama are “equally concerned about civil liberties as a principle” and touted steps he says he has taken to promote them. Answering his critics, Najib said: “Don’t underestimate or diminish whatever we have done.”
Obama is the first American president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years. He opened a busy, first full day in the country Sunday by touring the National Mosque of Malaysia in black socks, going shoeless in keeping with protocol. After the events with Najib, Obama stopped at an entrepreneurial center. He then went to the University of Malaya to announce a new initiative to increase U.S. engagement with the region’s young people and answer questions.
At the news conference, Obama defended Najib’s government’s handling of the search for the missing airplane. The Boeing 777 carrying 239 people, most of them Chinese, has been missing since March 8 and is believed to be deep at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
Anguished relatives of the passengers have been vocal about their unhappiness with the fruitless search effort, including recently demonstrating outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.
“The Malaysian government is working tirelessly to recover the aircraft and investigate exactly what happened,” Obama said. “I can’t speak for all the countries in the region but I can say that the United States and other partners have found the Malaysian government eager for assistance and fully forthcoming with us in terms of the information that they have.”
Obama said he understands the heartache and suffering of the passengers’ loved ones, but added that it will take even more time to find the plane because of the huge amount of ocean being scoured.
“Obviously, we don’t know all the details of what happened but we do know that, if in fact the plane went down in the ocean in this part of the world, that is a big place and it is a very challenging effort and laborious effort that’s going to take quite some time,” he said.
On tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Obama said there’s strong evidence Russia is encouraging destabilizing activities in eastern and southern Ukraine. He blamed Russia for failing to uphold terms of a recent deal reached in Geneva with Russia, the U.S., the European Union and Ukraine.
The accord calls on Russia to pull back its forces from the border with Ukraine and encourage pro-Russian separatists to turn over buildings they’re occupying in eastern Ukraine. Speaking a day before the U.S. was expected to levy new sanctions against Russia, Obama said what the accord “asks of Russia is hardly onerous.”
Obama departs Malaysia on Monday for the Philippines, following earlier stops in Japan and South Korea.
Two Philippine officials told The Associated Press on Sunday that the two governments have reached a 10-year pact that would allow a larger U.S. military presence in the country. The agreement was due to be signed Monday before Obama arrives.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.