Dreams of Their Fathers

Cambodia's people want freedom. Can Obama deliver?

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The question isn’t whether President Obama will broach human rights in Cambodia. The question is: Why should he? The answer rests with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who hopes to rule until he’s 80 or 90 years old, giving him at least another 20 years in power. Effectively, Hun Sen has no opposition, and hasn’t for years. His leading rival, Sam Rainsy, lives in self-imposed exile in France. As for other opponents, Hun Sen has pledged to "make them dead." And for demonstrators: "I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage."

Hun Sen ranks among the world’s longest-serving leaders, with more than 27 years on the job. During that time, at least 300 Cambodians have been killed in politically motivated attacks, according to a scathing Human Rights Watch report released last week. The document claims that "[k]illings, torture, illegal land confiscation, and other abuses of power are rife around the country." This year brought more blood: environmental activist Chut Wutty, shot and killed while investigating illegal logging; 14-year-old Heng Chantha, shot and killed among villagers protesting eviction from their land; and environmental journalist Hang Serei Odom, found dead in the trunk of his car with ax wounds to his head.

This is the scene Obama enters as he arrives in Phnom Penh for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits Monday and Tuesday. The U.S. visit stems from a diplomatic and economic "pivot toward Asia," which includes a stop in Burma, an updated defense cooperation agreement with Thailand, and, according to the Washington Post, an uptick in counterterrorism assistance to Cambodia (among other countries).

To the Cambodian people, Obama’s stop symbolizes the bright, beaming hope of the world’s preeminent democracy.

"All Cambodians are focusing on Obama’s visit," says Saing Soenthrith, a reporter and editor at the English-language Cambodia Daily, established in 1993. Cambodians hope Obama pressures Hun Sen on human rights, he says. "Our Cambodian people need Obama’s help."

But analysts suspect human rights will take a back seat on this ride. The Obama administration has bigger geopolitical fish to fry. "Overall the stakes are much higher: To keep a U.S. foot in the door with Cambodia in an effort to balance Cambodia’s growing relationship with China," says Donald Jameson, a former U.S. embassy officer in Phnom Penh during the 1970s who closely tracks the country. Jameson predicts Obama or someone on staff will craft a "general throwaway line" about human rights, "so that the U.S. can credibly argue that it has discussed this with the Cambodian government."

The China factor is big and wide. A territorial uproar in the South China Sea pits China against several ASEAN nations, as well as Japan. The dispute "is getting to be quite aggressive and threatening to many of our traditional allies," says Joel Brinkley, author of Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. "This administration is very intent on increasing and empowering our presence in that part of the world."

China also boasts a massive economic footprint in Cambodia unlikely to be matched by any other nation: a reported $8.2 billion of investments in the past six years, with another $2.5 billion in infrastructure and loans in the works. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, China’s 2011 investments in Cambodia — totaling nearly 15 percent of the country’s GDP — exceeded those of the U.S. tenfold. "China has spent billions of dollars trying to buy Cambodia," Brinkley says. That money has helped build an infrastructure and economy unrecognizable from that of just five years ago. Roads, bridges, factories, skyscrapers: Cambodia’s pastoral landscape is changing.

Those shifts underscore a crucial point. For all his transgressions, Hun Sen has sown two key seeds while cultivating his power. "He has imposed stability on a country that has experienced more than thirty years of turmoil and civil war," Jameson writes in a March 2011 East-West Center report. And he has opened his country "to virtually unrestricted foreign investment." The Obama administration likes political stability and economic expansion. Both decrease the likelihood of unrest, which would threaten both U.S. and Chinese interests.

The thing is, Chinese money comes with no humanitarian strings attached. And, "foreign leaders coming to Cambodia and lecturing Hun Sen accomplish nothing," Brinkley says. "Nothing."

Human rights issues in Cambodia are "unrelated to visits by foreign potentates," says historian David Chandler, one of the foremost experts on modern Cambodia. Hun Sen has a history of excoriating foreigners who critique him. Recently, when the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia urged Cambodian authorities to improve conditions for next year’s national elections, Hun Sen reportedly said he "should not write stupidly about Cambodia."

But Cambodians still have hope for change. Last week, villagers facing eviction from their homes near Phnom Penh’s international airport painted their rooftops with "SOS" signs accompanied by pictures of Obama. Eight were arrested. Their message is gone, but the sentiment remains.

And theirs is not the only plea for help. Land-rights activists rallied outside the U.S. Embassy three times in the past week, asking Obama to address forced evictions and land confiscations, according to Long Kimheang, senior communication officer for the Housing Rights Task Force. But the people were "forcibly evicted by hundreds of riot police, military police, secret police, and Phnom Penh security men."

Some U.S. dignitaries are on the activists’ side. Twelve members of Congress signed an October 31 letter urging Obama to prod the Cambodian government to clean itself up before the next national elections, set for July 2013.

Human rights are indeed on this week’s agenda for discussion. According to a Cambodia Daily interview this week, Samantha Power, senior director for Multinational Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council, says she will hold roundtable discussions on a broad menu covering elections, human trafficking, women’s rights and other issues.

Some interested parties had hoped for more. "Initially it was all sort of sunshine and light. It looked like labor would be a huge focus," says David Welsh, country program director for the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO affiliate. "That, for whatever reason, has been sidetracked… but it created huge expectations."

The momentum comes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit in July, when she gave a buoyant speech outlining a vision of economic progress bolstered by workers’ rights. Child labor, forced labor, and discrimination has to end, Clinton asserted. The right to join a union or collectively bargain is a universal right — one that, properly exercised, also promotes economic growth, she argued. Standing up for the right to organize is "both right and moral, but it is also smart and strategic." Workers who are paid more buy more goods. And that makes the economy grow.

"For the secretary of state to talk about trade union rights and collective bargaining on that level of specificity was amazing," Welsh says. It showed that geopolitical discussion of business, trade and markets "doesn’t have to happen in a vacuum that excludes human rights and proper labor law." Obama could follow suit, emphasizing economy and rights. "You can have both, and I hope he takes a strong line on both."

After all, the United States and Cambodia share market interests. "The largest investors in the country in the garment industry remain American companies like Gap and Levi’s and Walmart." American buyers still hold sway, Welsh says, "despite the massive Chinese investment here."

Chinese influence won’t end, and Cambodians know that. Chinese traders roamed the region well before the 13th century diplomat Chou Ta-Kuan wrote of his journey from Peking to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. The Chinese presence endures. That, Cambodians expect.

But from the United States they want something different: a strong force to defend democracy and condemn the violation of human rights. Obama’s visit gives Cambodians new hope, which people need, says Saing Soenthrith of The Cambodia Daily. If Obama does not press human rights issues, he says, Cambodians will live "under darkness of Hun Sen’s power."

On some levels, Cambodians have sought and welcomed saviors from the horrors of their recent history, but they’ve often been let down. In 1979, the Vietnamese ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge — and then implemented a repressive decade-long occupation. Khmers still debate whether to call that time liberation or invasion. In 1993, the United Nations brought the country’s first-ever democratic elections — widely seen as flawed. In 1998, amid weeks of violent post-election protests, Cambodians erected a camp called "Democracy Square," with demonstration signs written in English. Protesters told foreign journalists they wanted the United States to set the people free. That didn’t happen.

Today, Cambodians look to Barack Obama, president of the world’s most powerful democracy, which espouses the very ideals many Cambodian people seek. The president’s preceding visit to Burma will show a country progressing in human rights "and Cambodia should do the same," says Hing Channarith, CEO of the Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation, an NGO that aids impoverished rural Cambodians. It’s a telling statement, considering Burma is just opening up while Cambodia’s democracy dates back 20 years.

For Cambodians, the real test of Obama’s visit will come next summer, when Hun Sen is, once again, up for reelection. Those polls must be free; Sam Rainsy must have his run, Channarith says. The world must watch and take account.

If not, Channarith says, "then Mr. Obama’s visit is nothing."

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