Obama Presses Cambodia PM on Human Rights

Posted on November 19, 2012


U.S. President Barack Obama has voiced concerns about Cambodia’s human rights record in what U.S. officials describe as a “tense” meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

US President Barack Obama, left, poses with Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen for photographers before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 19, 2012.

Obama, who arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, Monday, raised the issue of free and fair elections and the detention of political prisoners.

U.S Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama told the prime minister those issues are an “impediment” to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper relationship.

Cambodian officials said in response that the concerns about human rights are exaggerated.

​​After the talks with Hun Sen, the U.S. president met with the 10 leaders attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in the capital.

In another development, Cambodian rights groups voiced disappointment about the adoption at the summit of an ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights, saying the declaration does not go far enough to ensure rights for all people. The head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak said that, for example, the declaration gives people the right to demonstrate, but not if the demonstrations affect a country’s social order.

President Obama arrived in Phnom Penh from Burma, where he addressed a crowd at the University of Rangoon earlier in the day. Obama said he had come to keep his promise and extend “the hand of friendship.”  He added that “flickers of progress” that have been seen must not be extinguished, but must become – in his words – “a shining North Star” for all the nation’s people.

Earlier in the day,  Obama met separately with Burmese President Thein Sein and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s main city of Rangoon.


Obama, Hun Sen in ‘Tense’ Talks

The two leaders debate human rights issues gripping Cambodia.

U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on prickly human rights issues during “tense” talks in Phnom Penh on Monday, calling on Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader to release political prisoners and ensure that free and fair elections are held in the country next year.

But Hun Sen vigorously defended his human rights record during the meeting, according to U.S. and Cambodian officials, despite claims by both local and international non-governmental groups that abuses had grown increasingly common in the country.

Obama arrived in Cambodia from a visit to Burma, where he had met with reformist leaders and praised their efforts to transition the country into a democracy following decades of oppression under the former military junta.

His visit to both nations was the first ever by a U.S. president. He had traveled to the region to attend the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, both of which are being hosted by Cambodia.

A senior Cambodian Cabinet official said Obama particularly raised concerns over prisoners of conscience and rights abuses resulting from land disputes in the country during the meeting with his Cambodian counterpart at the Peace Palace.

“The prime minister replied to the president that in Cambodia there are no political prisoners, only politicians who became prisoners because of breaking the law,” Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon told RFA’s Khmer service.

“The president also spoke about … land disputes. The prime minister replied that the number of land disputes is decreasing because of the government policy of having [university] students measure the land for people [who are in conflict with companies granted economic land concessions].”

He said that Hun Sen planned to give some 200 million hectares (494.2 million acres) of land “to the people” to help alleviate the problem.

White House officials described Obama’s meeting with Hun Sen, which was held shortly after the U.S. president deplaned in Cambodia, as “tense.”

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that Obama spent most of the meeting discussing human rights issues.

“He began by expressing that his trip to Burma demonstrated the positive benefits that flow from countries moving down the path of political reform and increasing respect for human rights,” Rhodes said.

“He said that those types of issues are an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship.”

Rhodes said the president had specifically focused on the need for measures to ensure general elections slated for 2013 are contested fairly in a nation where the 60-year-old Hun Sen has held power since 1985 and has said he has no plans to step down until the age of 90.

“In particular, I would say the need for them to move toward elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Reuters quoted him as saying.

Prak Sokhon said that over the past month Cambodia had been the victim of a “campaign of criticism” and “twisted information” aimed at besmirching the country’s rights record and preventing Obama’s visit.

“Samdech told President Obama that Cambodian political rights and freedom of speech are not too bad compared to neighboring countries,” he said, using the prime minister’s honorific title.

He said the prime minister noted that other countries had “dismantled political parties” and “imprisoned their politicians,” but that in Cambodia “we are open for all people to join political parties and they can do whatever they want, within the framework of the law.”

On Sunday, all 10 ASEAN member states—Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and summit host Cambodia—ratified the organization’s first-ever Human Rights Declaration, despite protests from NGOs which had said the charter is not up to international standards and would fail to protect rights in the region.

Hun Sen welcomed recent recommendations from the United Nation’s special envoy about election reforms for Cambodia, but said that his country has its own electoral law which prevents the government from accepting those recommendations.

He also reiterated a request to Obama to forgive most of his country’s more than U.S. $370 million debt to the U.S. In January, the prime minister had said the “dirty debt” was incurred by a government that came to power in a 1970 coup backed by Washington.


Ahead of Obama’s arrival in Phnom Penh, municipal authorities issued orders preventing any demonstrations in the city, according to rights groups.

On Monday, police stopped opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) supporters from gathering in front of the Peace Palace to request Obama’s intervention in releasing independent Beehive Radio Director Mam Sonando, resolving land issues, and allowing the return of Sam Rainsy—leader of the National Rescue Party (NRP).

Mam Sonando was imprisoned after he was recently convicted of masterminding a revolt of villagers over a land dispute. He has rejected the charges.

Sam Rainsy’s NRP is a united opposition coalition aimed at challenging Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in elections next year. The opposition leader is currently living in self-imposed exile in Paris and could be imprisoned for up to 11 years on his return to Cambodia following convictions for various offenses he says were part of a campaign of persecution by the government.

Also ahead of Obama’s arrival, a group of villagers protesting their eviction from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake district gathered on Sunday evening and held signs reading “SOS” and calling on the president to help them return to their homes.

Police were deployed, sealing up access to the district and rounding up the protesters.

Obama welcomed

Residents of Phnom Penh expressed gratitude for Obama’s historic trip to their country, saying the visit would help bring international attention to the problems in Cambodian society.

“When I heard that U.S. President Obama was coming to Cambodia, I became happy. Now that this world leader knows Cambodia has many issues, we want him to help us,” said one resident who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“Those issues include land disputes, corruption, a limited freedom of the press, and a lack of independence in the court system,” the man said. “We want him to see for himself whether Cambodia is a true democracy.”

Another resident also expressed his excitement over the president’s visit, adding that he hoped Obama would bring about reconciliation in Cambodian politics.

“I want Sam Rainsy to be able to return to join the election,” he said.


Cambodians urge Obama to press for human rights

8:58PM EST November 19. 2012 – PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Chray Nim got the idea from a TV movie, when survivors made a giant “SOS” on their drifting boat.

Last week, Chray, 34, and more than 10 neighbors, fighting the loss of homes near Phnom Penh airport, painted “SOS” on their rooftops beside posters of President Obama.

Police armed with guns and spray-paint erased the letters, lest Obama and his team spot them as Air Force One touched down Monday on the third and final leg of his spin through Southeast Asia.

“We wanted him to see our message. We are Cambodian people, and we are the victims of eviction,” Chray said. The villagers did get a message out. The rough-arm tactics of police, who arrested Chray and seven other villagers, reminded the visiting world that the regime of Cambodia’s longtime leader Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer, still doesn’t tolerate dissent.

Obama met privately with the autocratic leader, who has held power for nearly 30 years. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the president told Hun Sen that without reforms, Cambodia’s human rights woes would continue to be “an impediment.”

Many Cambodians credit Hun Sen with helping the country emerge from the horrors of the 1970s Khmer Rouge reign, when systematic genocide left 1.7 million dead. Vietnam invaded and ousted that regime in 1979. By 1985, Hun Sen had become prime minister.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International say the human rights situation, especially freedom of expression, has worsened in recent years, as authorities use the court system to punish people speaking out against land grabs by powerful companies, one of the country’s hottest issues. A recent report by Human Rights Watch said more than 300 people have been killed in political attacks since 1991.

While world leaders from Obama to Russia’s Vladimir Putin are in town, this week is Cambodia’s rare moment in the spotlight. Before the East Asia Summit that Obama will attend and an ongoing annual summit of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, officials cleared the Cambodian capital of street vendors and dispatched beggars and the homeless to detention centers, said Vorn Pao, head of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), a group that monitors informal workers.

Last Tuesday, IDEA gathered almost 2,000 people, mostly farmers, for an ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly in Phnom Penh, but police scared the venue owner into cutting the electricity, which ended the event, Vorn Pao said. “The government should not be frightened of this, but they often restrict … activity,” he said. “They try to stop events where people may criticize the government.”

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan rejected such criticism Monday and insisted the world leaders’ meetings will showcase recent economic progress.

“What they complain about does not reflect the real situation in Cambodia. Freedom of expression is much better here than other members of ASEAN,” he said. As for any U.S. efforts to raise human rights issues this week, “we appreciate and respect their concerns,” he said.

The airport arrests disappointed Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, a human rights watchdog in Phnom Penh, who says the group has trained more than 5 million people since 1992.

“Civil society, the opposition and journalists have all been threatened by the government’s use of the court system,” he said. He sees hope in better informed citizens and their shrinking fear of the police.

“Right now, even if the government tries to threaten them, they know their rights. ‘SOS’ will be used by many other groups,” he predicted.

At Boeng Kak, a former lake area filled in by the government for development, Tep Vanny, 32, led about 100 residents and former residents in demonstrations Sunday and Monday, holding large SOS signs.

Tep Vanny, 32, a land rights activist, holds up a poster of President Obama above an ‘SOS’ sign on Saturday in in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)

“We want Obama and Hillary Clinton to talk about human rights and the land issue when they meet the Cambodian government and further encourage the government to respect the democratic system,” she said.

She gave up her grocery store and suffered prison in her three-year fight to avoid eviction and secure land titles. Her husband has been suspended from the Cambodian navy for her activism.

“I am happy if Cambodia has development, as our future will be better, but instead, we lost everything, as development only helps the powerful, rich groups,” she said. Compared with the brutal but quick murder meted out by the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s, “now in Cambodia they use corruption to kill people. It’s a slow, heartbreaking death,” she said.

At Tep Vanny’s women’s workshop, Sabo Soth, 60, feels “hopeless” about helping her daughter, Bo Pha, 31, a self-taught activist jailed for more than two months without charge. “Her (8-year-old) son wakes up a lot at night, terrified,” she said. “I hope Obama, the most influential leader, could do something.”

Disputes over land, often taken by developers with close government contacts, risk impoverishing large numbers of Cambodian people, said Rupert Abbot, a Cambodia-based researcher at Amnesty International. At the same time, “we’re seeing the emergence of a real civil society, grass-roots groups … getting stronger and beginning to link up,” he said. “There’s been an increase in community activism and an increase in crackdowns.”

At her village beside Phnom Penh airport, Chray Nim repeats the words she wants the U.S. president to hear. “I hope Obama will tell Hun Sen to respect the people and the residents’ human rights,” she said. “After he leaves, I could be evicted, arrested again and accused of inciting social disorder. I hope Western countries will keep paying attention to these issues.”

Associated Press

Bismarck, Not Zod!

I was a not-so-teenage columnist for the Global Times this spring. Briefly, at any rate. Since the Times generally transmits official China’s views and I am an, ahem, occasional critic of Chinese policy, this was a marriage predestined for a quick annulment. (The honeymoon was fun.) The editors asked me to write something for the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, and to comment specifically on how Beijing can make its foreign policy more palatable to fellow Pacific powers.

I was pleased with theTimes column overall but failed to enlist pop culture in it. Let me correct that grave oversight now with some supplemental advice: General Zod, the supervillain who briefly conquered Earth in Superman II,  is not a good model for Chinese diplomacy, or anyone else’s for that matter. “Kneel before Zod!” would go over poorly in foreign capitals. It would prompt them to search out the Man of Steel for help. Empathy toward competitors, not just allies and friends, goes a long way. That doesn’t mean surrendering your goals. It just means trying to imagine how a foreign interlocutor or his constituents will view your policy, tailoring your message in terms that are as convivial as possible, and accommodating others’ legitimate interests wherever possible.

Browbeating others or demanding that they behold your country’s sheer awesomeness seldom counts as empathetic. Yet Zod-like words are a staple of China’s diplomacy toward weaker Asian countries. Beijing famously prefers to negotiate with ASEAN countries individually, for instance, in hopes of preventing Southeast Asian governments from making common cause on maritime territorial disputes and other controversies. The idea is much like the one behind Otto von Bismarck’s “hub-and-spoke” approach to European great-power politics following German unification. But Germany’s Iron Chancellor used artful diplomacy, not bluster, to keep prospective enemies from combining.

That stood Berlin in good stead during Bismarck’s long tenure as chancellor. Beijing, by contrast, routinely warns sovereign ASEAN governments not to negotiate common policy among themselves. It has done so repeatedly in recent encounters with the Philippines and Vietnam. Such conduct is bound to encourage Southeast Asians to arm while seeking help from powerful outsiders. It amounts to self-defeating behavior. Yet Beijing appears unable to help itself. I doubt pursuing Bismarckian diplomacy through General Zod’s methods will take China very far. Like Superman, Chinese leaders should cast Zod into the abyss.

James R. Holmes