KUALA LUMPUR (AP) ― 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 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 itinerary.
“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.”
|U.S. President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at his residence in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. ( AP-Yonhap)|
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‘s taken to promote them. Answering his critics, Najib said: “Don’t underestimate or diminish whatever we have done.”
Obama, who is on a two-day visit to Malaysia as part of a four-nation tour of Asia, also defended Najib’s government against criticism that it has mishandled the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The aircraft carrying 239 people, most of them Chinese, has been missing for nearly two months and is believed to be deep at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
“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.”
Anguished relatives of the passengers have been very vocal and public about their unhappiness with the fruitless search effort. Many of them have protested outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing in the past week.
Obama said he understands the heartache and suffering loved ones of the passengers are feeling, but 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.
Obama arrived on Saturday in Malaysia as part of a weeklong trip to Asia, following stops in Japan and South Korea. He spends Monday and Tuesday in the Philippines before returning to Washington.