Myanmar isn't alone: Obama in Cambodia is historic, too

From left, Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, US President Barack Obama, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Kan Zaw join hands together for a family photo session during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Korea summit in Phnom Penh on Nov. 19, 2012.

BOSTON — In his whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, much has been made of President Barack Obama's historic visit to Myanmar, where on Monday he became the first sitting US president to travel to the country also known as Burma.

But the president's visit to Cambodia, where he arrived after his Myanmar appearance for the East Asia and ASEAN summits, also matters. According to the Associated Press, Obama is the first-ever president of the United States to visit Cambodia. That itself is striking considering the heavy toll wrought by the US war in Vietnam on its neighbor, which, decades later, still has one of the highest rates of landmine injuries in the world from unexploded ordnance.

Beyond that, Obama's visit to Cambodia, like his trip to Myanmar, brings the issues of human rights and democracy to the diplomatic fore.

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Cambodia's veteran strongman, Hun Sen, is considered "one of Asia’s most Machiavellian politicians," in the words of the AP. Extrajudicial killings and persistent political interference with the courts are among the abuses commonly cited during Hun Sen's decades in power. In Phnom Penh this month, villagers have taken the opportunity of Obama's upcoming visit to appeal for some kind of pressure on their leadership to change its tactics. Residents near the airport threatened with forced eviction recently "spray painted SOS and plastered pictures of US President Barack Obama on the roofs of their homes" in an appeal for US pressure on the government, the Cambodia Daily reported.

In a telephone interview with GlobalPost earlier this month, Cambodia's self-exiled opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, said he was urging US politicians to prevent Obama's visit from effectively endorsing "the human rights violations of Mr. Hun Sen’s regime."

About half of Cambodia's annual budget comes from foreign aid, including tens of millions of dollars from US taxpayers.

"I think the US can play a very important role. It’s why I look forward to President Obama’s visit: to achieve some progress," Sam Rainsy said. He added: "I don’t think that President Obama will go to Cambodia and turn a blind eye to this authoritarian drift [of the government]."

The recent death of Cambodia's revered and influential retired King Norodom Sihanouk has also shifted the political balance, especially in advance of national elections next year, Sam Rainsy said.

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"Things can change very fast in Cambodia. Anything that seems impossible all of a sudden becomes possible.... You will see new developments because the demise of the king father, the situation in the South China Sea, the tension between China, on the one hand, ASEAN and especially Vietnam, [and] on the other hand the role of the US. The US now has much more leverage because of the increased tension in the South China Sea," he said.

According to Samantha Power, senior director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the US National Security Council, Obama intends to use some of that leverage to tackle the problems of unfair elections, human rights abuses and land-grabbing in his meetings with Hun Sen, the Cambodia Daily reported.

On a conference call with reporters last week, according to the Cambodia Daily, Power said: “Some of you may have already noticed that Hun Sen has actually, it looks like, sort of stepped up some of the infringements on civil society, and there’s been incidents of individuals who were making visual appeals to President Obama to do certain things with regard to calling for free and fair elections in the next election.... Right now, there’s no sign that those elections will be free and fair.”