President Obama on Sunday defended the Malaysian government's handling of its fruitless search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, saying officials are working hard to find the aircraft that is believed to be deep at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
Obama made the comments at a news conference in Malaysia Sunday, following talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on bilateral trade and human rights.
"The Malaysian government is working tirelessly to recover the aircraft and investigate exactly what happened," Obama said, with the prime minister at his side. "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."
The U.S. is helping in the search for the commercial jet, which disappeared last month while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
Obama said he understands the heartache and suffering loved ones of the passengers are feeling, but he said it will take even more time to find the plane because of the huge amount of ocean that is being scoured in the search operation.
"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."
Obama also called for international support on Russia sanctions Sunday, saying that "Russia has not lifted a finger to help" tamp down the conflict in the Ukraine.
Obama is pushing back against suggestions the U.S. should levy sanctions on its own against broad sectors of Russia's economy. He says the U.S. and Europe must act collectively to deter Vladmir Putin.
The president also downplayed the fact that a meeting with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim wasn't on his schedule. Human rights activists were urging Obama to meet with the Malaysian opposition leader during his two-day visit to the country. Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, is scheduled to meet with Anwar on Monday instead.
Anwar, the former deputy prime minister, was recently convicted on sodomy charges that the U.S. and international human rights groups argue are politically motivated.
"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. "That doesn't mean I'm not concerned about them."
Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, is scheduled to meet with Anwar on Monday instead.
Obama said Prime Minister Najib would be the first to admit Malaysia has work to do on civil liberties and political reform, as does the U.S. He 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."
Obama's visit to Malaysia is the third-stop on Obama's Asian swing and marks the first visit by a U.S. president to the predominantly Muslim country in nearly a half century. It follows stops in Japan and South Korea. On Monday, Obama heads to the Philippines, where he is expected to sign a security agreement paving the way for a greater military presence.
Malaysia is one of a dozen countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations. The proposed deal was a major focus on Obama's visit to Tokyo earlier in the week, but negotiators have failed so far to overcome the opposition of Japanese farmers to plans to open the country's markets to imports of rice, poultry and other agricultural goods.
While his Asian swing does not include any stops in China, its presence has loomed over the trip. In remarks throughout his visit, Obama has tried to reaffirm U.S. military support for allies in the region engaged in territorial disputes with Beijing and encourage China's leaders to wield their clout over North Korea's isolated and unpredictable government.
On Sunday, Obama also paid a visit to the National Mosque of Malaysia, where two former prime ministers and two former deputies are buried.
During a state dinner at the Istana Negara palace on Saturday night, Malaysian King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah thanked Obama for U.S. help following the disappearance of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet and said he welcomed the two countries working "hand in hand" to ensure "peace and stability" in the region.
In a grand ballroom filled with about 600 dinner guests, Obama used a few words of Bahasa Malaysian to toast his hosts. He noted his late mother's love of batik. In her anthropology training, his mother, Ann Dunham, focused on the indigenous crafts of Indonesia, where Obama lived as a young boy.
"For my mother, batik wasn't about fashion. ... It was a window into the lives of others — their cultures, lives and tradition," the president said.
"My mother believed, and I believe, that whether we come from a remote village or a big city, whether we live in the United States or in Malaysia, we all share basic human aspirations," he said. "To live in dignity and peace. To shape our own destiny. To be able to make a living and to work hard and support a family."