Last updated: February 19. 2013 6:05PM - 281 Views

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Barack Obama began a short tour of Southeast Asia on Sunday with a visit to longtime ally Thailand, part of a second term focus on the fast-growing region that will also include a first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president.

As I've said many times, the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation, Obama said at a news conference with Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The Asian Pacific shapes so much of our security and prosperity ahead and it's critical for creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. That's why I've made restoring America's engagement in this region a top priority as president.

From Thailand, Obama will go to Myanmar, and then to Cambodia for a meeting with Asian leaders. He is to return to Washington early Wednesday.

Even as he looked to Asia, Obama was reminded that other priorities remain high on the agenda as escalating violence in Gaza and Israel has left 45 people dead.

In his first comments about the situation, Obama Sunday repeatedly backed Israel's right to defend itself.

There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders, he said. We are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself.

He also urged a step back from the violence lest it do even more damage to long-term prospects for peace.

If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future, Obama said.

Obama will travel today to Myanmar, a country that has begun to become a democracy after years of military rule. Some human rights organizations have criticized the president for traveling to the nation that still is engaged in ethnic fighting.

The president defended his trip, saying political prisoners have been released and that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was imprisoned for nearly 15 years until 2010, now serves in the Parliament.

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