Making the first visit by a US president to Malaysia in almost half a century, Barack Obama plans to shun Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s popular opposition leader who faces jail on a sodomy charge that is widely seen as politically motivated.
But Dr Anwar, sentenced to five years' jail on the rarely used colonial-era charge in March, stopped short of criticising Mr Obama, only saying that a meeting would have been “consistent with US democratic ideals and its foreign policy of promoting freedom and justice”.
US officials briefing reporters in Washington ahead of Mr Obama’s week-long tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, which starts on Tuesday, said there were no plans for Mr Obama to meet Dr Anwar, although they did not rule out a lower-level meeting.
Dr Anwar, 66, remains free pending an appeal on the charge that relates to allegations he had sex with a former male aide in 2008.
“I am not upset,” Dr Anwar said of Mr Obama”s decision, but he added that a meeting would have been “helpful” in his battle with Malaysia’s ruling party, in which he used to be deputy prime minister before a spectacular falling out with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Dr Anwar has cultivated strong friendships in Washington, and the US State Department questioned his conviction, which was originally thrown out of court before the government lodged an appeal.
His supporters are planning a mass rally in Kuala Lumpur on May 1.
On Saturday, Mr Obama will arrive in Malaysia, where a sceptical view of the United States has existed for years, fuelled in part by Dr Mahathir, who speculated that the CIA brought down the World Trade Centre in 2001 as a plot to blame Muslims.
But Prime Minister Najib Razak, a former defence minister, has made improving ties with the US one of the goals of his time in office and has responded well to a number of American requests, including providing increased sea and air access for US forces.
Mr Obama’s visit to the Muslim-majority country comes amid anti-US sentiment stoked by wild speculation in the government-controlled media over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. This is despite the fact that US agencies have helped search for the plane and assisted the criminal investigation into the cause of its disappearance.
The government-owned Utusan Malaysia newspaper last month published a report claiming the US was involved in the plane’s disappearance in an elaborate plot to damage ties between Malaysia and China. The government took several days to refute the claim.
Malaysia’s leaders, who have faced a barrage of international criticism over the unexplained disappearance of the airliner, will be highly sensitive to any criticism from Mr Obama on issues that opposition MPs and some civil society groups would like him to raise, such as human rights, independence of the judiciary, democratic development and internal security legislation in the country of 30 million people where the United Malays National Organisation has maintained power since independence in 1957.
Mr Obama is scheduled to hold a joint press conference with Mr Najib on Sunday. The US president is also due to attend a town-hall event at Malaya University with young regional leaders and meet civil society groups.
No other sitting US president has visited Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson travelled to Kuala Lumpur in 1966.
Briefing journalists on the trip, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said she and other top officials “increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it’s assessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values”.
“And at a time of ongoing regional tensions, particularly with regard to North Korea and territorial disputes, the trip offers a chance for the United States to affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region,” she said.
During the tour, Mr Obama is expected to push trade negotiations with Japan and work to ease tensions between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
His arrival in the Philippines on Monday will follow agreement between the US and the island country on the key points of a pact to boost American troop presence in the Philippines to counter China’s push for control of disputed South China Sea territory.