Cambodian villagers' SOS to Obama lands them in jail


A Cambodian girl paints "SOS" by a portrait of US President Barack Obama on the roof next to the Phnom Penh International Airport on November 14, 2012.



In the make-believe Cambodia that government leaders hope to present to Barack Obama on his upcoming visit, the streets are free of urchins and villagers are content with well-connected business interests running them out of their homes.

Land grabbing by government cronies is a major blight on Cambodia's record. (This op-ed by a Cambodian opposition figure offers a brief primer.) Most Cambodians chased out of their villages have no way to complain about their plight to the outside world.

But it just so happens that one slum village slated for demolition is situated in the path of incoming flights to the capital Phnom Penh's airport. So, as the Associated Press reports, they painted SOS on their tin roofs alongside photos of Obama. Perhaps they thought he'd awkwardly ask, "What's the deal with that SOS village?" when drinking tea with Hun Sen, Cambodia's strongman premier.

Had the police not arrested eight of the villagers, according to AFP, I'd imagine the odds of this plea for help coming up in Obama's private talks would be very low. But they did. And in lieu of letting a handful of poor people paint SOS on their roof -- an act likely to be ignored -- Cambodian authorities have given this story legs.

As a president visiting with a highly corrupt and abusive ruling cabal -- who are propped up, in part, by U.S. donors -- Obama will need to make some statement on Cambodian soil that portrays him as tough on human rights. It's a long shot, but maybe the SOS village will get a nod from the U.S. president after all.