Obama South East Asia Trip: Trouble In Cambodia

Obama's visits to both Thailand and Burma went symbolically well. He did all the right things in Thailand and in spite of all the reservations about Obama's Burma visit, he may have sent all the right messages, particularly through the way the visit was orchestrated and his speech at Rangoon University where he talked strongly about inclusiveness. Local news reports in local papers warmly reported the visit.

However the same could not be said for his visit to Cambodia.

Like Burma, Obama's trip to Cambodia was also criticized by some human rights activists. And probably it was a visit with more concerns because, unlike Burma's Thein Sien who has started on a road of liberalization and opening up to the world, Hun Sen is reluctant to carry out any major reform in the country.

Human Rights Watch published a list of numerous breaches of human rights in Cambodia over the last 20 years forcing Obama's hand to declare publicly that his visit to Cambodia was only to attend the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian Summits.

There are many reports that Obama's meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen upon arrival in Cambodia was a very tense one. The Obama administration, although not Obama directly, had previously criticized Hun Sen for his human rights record, political intimidation, imprisonment of opposition leaders, forced expulsion of peasants from the land, and the failure to hold free and fair elections.

A report in The Cambodian Daily reported the meeting between the two leaders and gave a very different account to the version that Obama aids gave the media. According to Reuters quoting US deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes the meeting was almost totally devoted to human rights, but speaking at a press conference after the meeting, the Cambodian Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said that Obama had only raised human rights issues because of being asked to by U.S. lawmakers.

Ahead of the meeting Obama was specifically urged to ask for a pardon for opposition leader Sam Rainsy so he could return to Cambodia without having to serve an 11 year jail sentence believed to be politically motivated. According to Prak Sokhon this matter was not brought up by Obama at all.

According to Prak Sokhon, Hun Sen did request that a $400 million loan with interest given to the Lon Nol Government back in the 1970s be converted to 30% of that amount with a 1% interest rate, where the Cambodian government could spend the rest of the loan amount on education and cultural projects. Sohkon remarked that this request was met with silence by Obama.

Hun Sen is a long time politician in the region seasoned by frequent criticism from other foreign leaders over the years. Obama is just another one of those leaders, and Hun Sen may even outlast Obama in office. Cambodia receives aid from China, South Korea, and even Vietnam with little in the way of conditions over the use of the funds or rhetoric about human rights — something he continually says publicly. Therefore Obama's visit and statements to Hun Sen just fell on deaf ears.

Consequently the U.S. pivot into Asia is unlikely to include Cambodia. It appears naval ship visits, joint military exercises, counter terrorism training, and cooperation on human trafficking over the last five years have done little to warm up U.S.-Cambodian relations. On the contrary, Obama's visit to Cambodia has benefitted Hun Sen, who could bask in the photo and TV opportunities with the U.S. president which were all displayed prominently on Cambodian television.

The ASEAN Summit once again failed to reach any consensus in regards to territorial sea disputes with China. The Philippines even lodged a formal protest against Cambodia accusing it of suppressing discussion on disputed territorial areas with Vietnam. No questions from the media were answered on these matters during the summit.

This was a good close up and personal lesson for Obama on the difficulty of reaching agreement to act within the region. The president's Asia pivot is necessary for the U.S. to create free trade agreements so the economy can continue to grow and maintain a balance of power in the region vis-a-vis China.

If Obama's time on the ground in Cambodia is an example of his effectiveness in achieving his South East Asian policy objectives, it's going to be a tough road ahead.