BANGKOK -- On the eve of his landmark trip to Myanmar, President Barack Obama tried to assure critics that his visit was not a premature reward for a long-isolated nation still easing its way toward democracy.
"This is not an endorsement of the government," Obama said Sunday in Thailand as he opened a three-country dash through Asia. "This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw."
Obama was set to become the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar with Air Force One scheduled to touch down in Yangon on Monday morning. Though Obama planned to spend just six hours in the country, the much-anticipated stop came as the result of a remarkable turnaround in the countries' relationship.
The president's Asia tour also marks his formal return to the world stage after months mired in a bruising re-election campaign. For his first postelection trip, he tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security.
Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama's second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China.
China's rise is also at play in Myanmar, which long has aligned itself with Beijing. But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy.
The president has appointed a permanent ambassador to the country, also known as Burma, and pledged greater investment if Myanmar continues to progress following a half-century of military rule.
But some human rights groups say Myanmar's government, which continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners and is struggling to contain ethnic violence, hasn't done enough to earn a personal visit from Obama.
Speaking from neighboring Thailand, Obama said Sunday he was under no illusions that Myanmar had done all it needed to do. But he said the U.S. could play a critical role in helping ensure the country doesn't slip backward.
"I'm not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there's an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country," Obama said during a joint press conference Sunday with Thailand's prime minister.
Obama will meet separately in Myanmar with Prime Minister Thein Sein, who has orchestrated much of his country's recent reforms. The president will also meet with longtime Myanmar democracy activist Aung Sun Suu Kyi in the home where she spent years under house arrest.
The president, as he seeks to assuage critics, has trumpeted Suu Kyi's support of his outreach efforts, saying Sunday that she was "very encouraging" of his trip.
The White House says Obama will express his concern for the ongoing ethnic tensions in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where more than 110,000 people -- the vast majority of them Muslims known as Rohingya -- have been displaced.
The U.N. has called the Rohingya -- who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar -- among the world's most persecuted people.
The White House says Obama will press the matter Monday with Thein Sein, along with demands to free remaining political prisoners as the nation transitions to democracy.