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May 29, 2017

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Obama courts Malaysia while nudging on rights

KUALA LUMPUR--U.S. President Barack Obama nudged Malaysia on Sunday over its controversial handling of dissent but made clear Washington intended to deepen its friendship with a country it considers vital to U.S. objectives in the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama also offered continued U.S. support in the search for missing flight MH370 as he held talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, after which the two leaders declared the start of a warmer new era in relations.

"Today across a whole range of areas — security, trade, and regional institutions — we are working more closely than ever before," Obama said during a joint press conference, calling Malaysia "central" to stability in Southeast Asia.

During a trip that started in Japan and South Korea and finishes in the Philippines on Tuesday, Obama has reinforced U.S. security support for regional allies alarmed by China's claims to vast maritime expanses around the region.

These include overlapping claims with Malaysia and others in the South China Sea.

But Obama was drawn into Malaysia's highly polarized politics during the press briefing with Najib, whose government is accused of using courts and police to harass or jail opponents and stifling free expression.

Obama said he stressed to Najib the importance of respecting dissent and ensuring rule of law and would "make sure that we are making progress on that front."

But with the trip's larger objectives clearly in mind, he also gave Najib political cover, noting what he called "progress" on rights.

"I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has some work to do, just like the United States still has some work to do," he said.

Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Relations have been marked by bickering in recent decades when Malaysia was a vocal anti-Western member of the non-aligned movement.

But the more Western-minded Najib has changed the tune, dovetailing with Washington's wish to shore up security partnerships in the region amid China's rise.

Early Sunday Obama paid homage to multicultural Malaysia's relatively moderate brand of Islam in a visit to Kuala Lumpur's marble-colonnaded National Mosque.

The U.S. administration sparked controversy earlier when it left opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim off Obama's list of appointments.

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