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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Barack Obama is opening the first visit to Malaysia by an American president in nearly half a century, underlining the important role that Southeast Asia plays in the president’s efforts to forge deeper ties to the Asia-Pacific region. Excited by the occasion, Obama’s hosts are treating him to a truly royal welcome.
After changing into a tuxedo following his arrival Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Obama was taken to the Istana Negara, the National Palace, where he was the honored guest at a 600-person state dinner in a banquet hall inside the king’s massive, gilded residence. Trumpets blared as Obama was escorted into the room and led to a tufted, high-backed chair that sported the royal seal and seemed almost too large for him.
During a brief toast, Obama expressed his deep gratitude to the Malaysian people for including some of his late mother’s artwork in a museum exhibit two years ago. He also spoke of Lyndon B. Johnson, the last American president to visit Malaysia. Obama recalled how Johnson had been impressed during his 1966 visit by the “extraordinary vitality and eagerness he saw on the faces of the people of Southeast Asia.”
“I’m eager to see that same spirit tomorrow,” Obama said.
The king, in his toast, said Obama’s visit illustrated “the excellent state of the longstanding relations between our governments.”
Earlier Saturday, Obama stepped off of Air Force One and onto a red carpet at the Royal Malaysian Air Base. He was whisked by limousine to Parliament Square, where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute as he watched from beneath a yellow awning, flanked by Malaysia’s king and Prime Minister Najib Razak. A military band played the U.S. and Malaysian national anthems — twice — and Obama inspected an elaborate honor guard in crisp green and white before the ceremony ended.
During Obama’s two-day visit, which follows stops in Japan and South Korea, the president will also meet with citizen leaders and hold a town hall-style forum with young leaders from across the region. But Obama will not meet with a prominent Malaysian opposition leader despite appeals from human rights groups.
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Trade, defense and maritime security are among the issues Obama and Najib were expected to discuss during talks scheduled for Sunday. Malaysia is one of a dozen countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations, a top priority for Obama’s global economic agenda.
Last month’s disappearance of a commercial airliner carrying 239 people put Malaysia in the international spotlight as Obama was preparing to head to the region. The U.S. is assisting in the massive and widening search effort.
Absent from Obama’s itinerary in Malaysia: A meeting with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who presents the most potent political threat to Najib amid a decline in Najib’s popular support over the past two elections.
The U.S. spurned calls from human rights groups for the president himself to meet with the 66-year-old former deputy prime minister, but was instead sending Susan Rice, his national security adviser and former U.N. ambassador, to meet with him.
Anwar was recently convicted for the second time on sodomy charges that the U.S. and international human rights groups have claimed are politically motivated. Anwar is appealing, and could be forced to give up his seat in parliament and go to prison if he loses.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Obama that the president typically does not meet with opposition leaders during foreign visits, but felt the issue was important enough to dispatch Rice instead. Obama and other top officials have raised Anwar’s case in past meetings with Malaysian officials, Rhodes added.
Halfway through the eight-day, four-nation trip, Obama has started showing signs of weariness from the mileage and the 12- to 13-hour time shift from Washington while traveling in Asia. He normally jogs up the stairs to Air Force One, but on Saturday slowed to a walk instead.
Before departing Seoul on Saturday, Obama addressed U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and received a military briefing focused on North Korea. Obama will spend Monday and Tuesday in the Philippines before returning to Washington.