[PHOTO AT LEFT - US President Barack Obama shares a light moment with President Arroyo in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Thursday (Friday in Manila). AP WASHINGTON (AP)]

WASHNGTON, AUGUST 1, 2009 (STAR) President Arroyo, the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the Obama White House, thanked the United States on Thursday for upgrading the Philippine military and providing essential help for the former US colony's advancement in economic and other fields.

Her host, President Barack Obama, praised Mrs. Arroyo for initiating a reconciliation process in the troubled Mindanao region of the southern Philippines "that we think has the potential to bring peace and stability to a part of the Philippines that has been wracked by unrest for too long."

He spoke of the "strong voice" of the Philippines on Asian issues, such as human rights violations in Myanmar and North Korea's nuclear program.

Obama said he looks forward to visiting Southeast Asia and added that the Philippines will be "the coordinating country in the US relationship with ASEAN." Manila was a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the principal strategic organization in the region.

Meeting with reporters after a 45-minute Oval Office meeting, Mrs. Arroyo also praised what she called the "soft power" of the United States, improving the civilian infrastructure not only in Mindanao but in other Philippine areas.

"We are very thankful for the US as an important ally in helping to professionalize our military and making it more effective," Mrs. Arroyo said. "Just as important, we are thankful to the US for being such a good ally ... working on soft power, by helping us build bridges, roads, schools, not only in Mindanao, but across the nation."

She added: "This assistance of the US has gone a long way in helping us to achieve what we have been able to achieve in the peace process in Mindanao, in southern Philippines, and also in our fight against terrorism."

Mrs. Arroyo also praised Obama's position on climate change, which she said is vital for the Philippines, an archipelago of thousands of islands.

"Severe climate change is going to be disastrous for our country," she said. "We are already feeling the weather pattern changes and the rising seas."

Afterward, Mrs. Arroyo told Philippine media she was "happy, very pleased" with the meeting, and described Obama as "cordial, warm, welcoming, very impressive" and knowledgeable about the US-Philippine relations.

She said she gave Obama and the first lady pearl cufflinks and a brooch as gifts, and that Obama would visit the Philippines sooner or later.

In Manila, the prominent left-wing group Bayan criticized Obama's meeting with Mrs. Arroyo, saying "it did not result in any clear benefits for the Filipino people."

It also took issue with Obama calling the Philippines "the coordinating country in the US relationship with ASEAN," saying it is not a very flattering designation.

"It speaks of how the US still considers the Philippines its colonial outpost in Asia. The US expects us to parrot its position within the ASEAN," Bayan spokesman Renato Reyes said in a statement.

He said the term "coordinating country" makes the Philippines "America's glorified errand boy in the region. We're considered the US surrogate in Southeast Asia."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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