Julie Pace

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: President Barack Obama on Sunday pressed the Malaysian government to improve its human-rights record and appealed to Southeast Asia’s teeming youth population to stand up for the rights of minorities and the rule of law.

Yet Obama skipped a golden chance to promote that human-rights agenda, declining to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Instead, he directed national security adviser Susan Rice to see Ibrahim today.

Obama said his decision was “not indicative of our lack of concern” about the former deputy prime minister who recently was convicted for the second time on sodomy charges, which the United States and international human rights groups contend are politically motivated.

Obama said he had raised his concerns about Malaysia’s restrictions on political freedoms during meetings with Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“Those values are at the core of who the U.S. is, but also I think are a pretty good gauge of whether a society is going to be successful in the 21st century or not,” Obama said during a news conference with Najib.

Obama called the prime minister a “reformer” committed to addressing human rights issues.

To his critics, Najib said: “Don’t underestimate or diminish whatever we have done.”

Malaysia is Obama’s third stop on a four-country swing through Asia.

Obama’s visit to Malaysia, the first by a U.S. president in nearly 50 years, elevated human rights to the forefront of his agenda.

While Malaysia has undertaken some reforms, the organization Human Rights Watch says religious and ethnic minorities face persecution and the government uses “highly restrictive laws and abusive implementation” to crack down on political opponents.

Part of Obama’s strategy for confronting these issues has been through direct appeals to young people. It’s an approach that his advisers say could be particularly effective in Southeast Asian nations, such as Malaysia, that have young populations.

“Young people will ultimately determine the future of this region given that there’s such a big youth bulge,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

Following his talks with Najib, Obama met with students participating in a new technology program and then held a meeting with 400 young leaders from throughout Southeast Asia.