KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - President Obama on Sunday pressed the Malaysian government to improve its human-rights record and appealed to Southeast Asia's teeming youth population to stand up for the rights of minorities and the rule of law.
Yet Obama skipped a chance to promote that human-rights agenda, declining to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Instead, he directed national security adviser Susan Rice to see Anwar on Monday.
Obama said his decision was "not indicative of our lack of concern" about the former deputy prime minister who recently was convicted for the second time on sodomy charges, which the U.S. and international human rights groups contend are politically motivated. Obama said he had raised his concerns about Malaysia's restrictions on political freedoms during meetings with Prime Minister Najib Razak.
"Those values are at the core of who the U.S. is, but also I think are a pretty good gauge of whether a society is going to be successful in the 21st century or not," Obama said during a news conference with Najib. He called the prime minister a "reformer" committed to addressing human rights issues.
To his critics, Najib said: "Don't underestimate or diminish whatever we have done."
Malaysia is Obama's third stop on a four-country swing through Asia.
He planned to head Monday to the Philippines, where he was expected to announce a 10-year security agreement that would allow for a larger U.S. military presence there amid the Philippines' increasingly tense territorial disputes with China.
The agreement would give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships. Officials said the exact number of additional U.S. troops would depend on the scale of joint military activities.
The accord is a centerpiece of Obama's effort to highlight the U.S. military's commitment to the security of Asian allies as China takes aggressive actions in territorial disputes. He carried that message during visits in Japan and South Korea, two of Washington's closest Asian partners.
Obama's visit to Malaysia, the first by a U.S. president in nearly 50 years, elevated human rights to the forefront of his agenda. While Malaysia has undertaken some reforms, Human Rights Watch says that religious and ethnic minorities face persecution and that the government uses "highly restrictive laws and abusive implementation" to crack down on political opponents.