US President Barack Obama lands in Phnom Penh this evening amid calls from lawmakers back home and international rights groups to address what is viewed as a deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia.
In the first-ever visits by a US president to Cambodia and Myanmar – both today – Obama has come under pressure to talk tough on rights with the leaders of both countries.
But in a sign of changing times in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has been the main target of rights groups ahead of Obama’s landmark visit, the focus of which is the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh this week.
“I think that the human rights situation in Cambodia is getting worse,” Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said today. “I don’t want to embarrass my country but we need to know the facts.”
At the end of June, a Phnom Penh court sentenced a radio broadcaster to 20 years in jail for encouraging an ‘insurrection’ following protests in eastern Cambodia. In April, security guards protecting an alleged illegal logging operation shot and killed an environmental activist.
Rights groups and the opposition say they are also concerned that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will continue to restrict the political opposition ahead of general elections next year in which he is expected to cement more than 30 years of rule.
Obama is expected to tread a delicate line between boosting ties with Cambodia, as the US plans renewed engagement with Southeast Asia, and raising rights concerns with Hun Sen during their scheduled meeting today.
“Our message to him on a bilateral basis is very much about the human rights abuses that are being committed within Cambodia’s borders, and urging him once and for all to actually start to take these concerns seriously, rather than continuing to move in very worrying directions,” Samantha Power, the US National Security Council director for multilateral affairs and human rights, said in a conference call on Thursday.
Last week, 12 US lawmakers sent a letter to Obama on rights abuses in Cambodia while warning of growing Chinese influence in the country.
Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian academic said that while there are concerns the US could push Hun Sen further into the arms of China, the Cambodian leadership would be “foolish to turn its back on America for raising human rights.”
The US is Cambodia’s biggest export market for cheap garments produced by low-paid workers in factories mainly clustered around the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
On Thursday, the International Labor Office named Cambodia among five countries including Argentina, Ethiopia, Fiji and Peru “as the most serious and urgent cases regarding freedom of association.”
On the same day, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and 70 rights organizations from across the region issued an open letter to Hun Sen calling for an end to “ongoing intimidation, threats and harassment” of civil society ahead of the East Asia Summit.