Cambodia’s human rights record will face increasing scrutiny this year from the international community as it chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with planned visits by U.S. and regional leaders, rights groups and officials say.
Aside from hosting a flurry of high-level ASEAN meetings, Cambodia will also hold the East Asia Summit in November involving leaders from the 10 ASEAN member states as well as eight others from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cambodia in July and November respectively for the meetings, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun said in Phnom Penh Monday after talks with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
A visit by Obama, who faces a reelection fight at the end of the year, would mark the first time a sitting U.S. president has traveled to Cambodia.
Clinton briefly visited the country in November 2010, meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen and other government officials, as well as a number of rights group and opposition members.
While Cambodian nongovernmental organizations and members of the country’s opposition welcomed news of the visit, they cautioned the U.S. to remain vigilant on issues of human rights, suffrage, and forced evictions in the country.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Cambodian rights group LICADHO, told RFA Tuesday that she hopes Obama’s visit will inspire officials in Phnom Penh to run the nation more effectively.
“We hope that we will receive more freedom and that the government will better respect human rights,” she said.
Kek said that while the visit might make Cambodia’s leaders look better on the world stage, they should not use it as cover for ongoing human rights violations.
“The government can’t hide any information regarding their abuses. When there is a problem inside the country, information about it is disseminated through the Internet,” she said.
She said that rights groups plan to gather ahead of the November meeting to compile a list of issues they will raise during Obama’s visit.
Meanwhile, opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said her Sam Rainsy Party plans to petition Obama to help resolve the election process in Cambodia, as well as to address the issues of forced evictions and human rights.
“The U.S. must ensure that fair and free elections are a precondition to further development in Cambodia,” she said.
Mu Sochua added that Obama’s visit is intended to promote democracy and the respect of human rights, rather than simply to honor the Cambodian government.
“The visit sends an important message to the government that it must adjust national policy towards democracy,” she said.
The visit by Clinton and Obama will help “strengthen relations” between the two countries, Cambodian Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Ouch Borith said Monday.
He called Obama’s visit in particular “an honor for Cambodia which will strengthen the relationship of the two countries.”
Yun confirmed the upcoming visits and told reporters that he had met with Hor Namhong to discuss preparations for the U.S. leaders’ travel to the country, as well as Cambodia’s role as the chair of ASEAN.
“Our goal is how to build our relationship in 2012. This is a good time,” he said.
During Yun’s visit, Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon told reporters that he had requested the U.S. to cancel more than U.S. $300 million in debt Cambodia accrued between 1970 and 1975.
On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected a U.S. proposal to reschedule the debt repayments, contending that the “dirty debt” had been incurred by a government that came to power in a 1970 coup backed by Washington.
The low-interest loans from the U.S. were given to the government of General Lon Nol after it came to power in a Washington-backed coup in 1970.
Cambodia says the money helped pay for a devastating bombing campaign on the country by U.S. forces targeting Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the early 1970s.
No agreements have yet been reached regarding the debt, Chhon said.
Reported by Sok Serey and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.