Cambodia-watchers react to Obama visit — and speculate on Myanmar as a new-found role model


Traffic rolls by the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 21, as the sprawling ASEAN Summit came to a close in the Cambodian capital.


Faine Greenwood

PHNOM PENH — US President Barack Obama's Monday visit to Yangon, Myanmar, was greeted with jubilant crowds. But his time in Cambodia was less of a celebratory affair.

In his brief, ASEAN-summit-focused visit, the president reportedly gave Prime Minister Hun Sen the cold shoulder, reading him the riot act in private on his administration's reported human rights abuses.

Opposition Parliament member and activist Mu Sochua said she and many of her friends were "very pleased" with Obama's behavior toward Hun Sen.

"I think he did the right thing to talk about the momentum for democratization in Burma, and at the same time warn of the human rights violations," she said. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

"Burma can surely be used as a role model in the sense that the tough junta are opening up and embracing principles of democracy by allowing elections to take place — and they had a very tough challenger, The Lady," Sochua added, referencing Aung San Suu Kyi.

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"This is Obama's way of saying to Hun Sen that 'your neighbors can do it, why can't you?'" observed Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

"This is an implicit US rejection of the Cambodia government argument that somehow human rights as practiced in the international community don’t fit in Cambodia’s context," added Robertson.

"Burma is far from perfect, but it’s clear that the trend in Burma is towards improvements on rights and democracy, while Cambodia is going the exact opposite way, in a rapid downward spiral towards a new moniker as one of the worst human rights abusing states in ASEAN."

Read more from GlobalPost: Myanmar isn't alone: Obama in Cambodia is historic, too

"Myanmar and Cambodia have very different political situations and histories, but Obama has cleverly positioned Myanmar as a 'halfway there' role model, not only to provide incentives to the country and its leaders, but also to provide an incentive to countries like Cambodia (and also perhaps Laos and Vietnam) to reform and see the benefits," said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.

"Sadly, the unstinting economic and political support of China for Cambodia, and Cambodia's willingness to stay firmly inside the China camp at all costs, limits the effectiveness of the model," he said.

Some observers felt Obama's hard-line wasn't hard enough when it came to Cambodia — and change will take more than harsh comparisons.

"A number of international media reports highlighted the so-called scolding of Hun Sen on human rights, but the impact in Cambodia itself was limited because there were no quotes from Obama himself to back this up," wrote Donald Jameson, a former US Embassy officer in Phnom Penh.

CEO and Khmerican.com co-founder Phatry Derek Pan echoed Jameson's sense that Obama's visit was less than satisfactory.

"Sure, it brought a sense of 'pride' to Cambodians worldwide that one of the most influential leaders stepped foot on Cambodian soil, but his stay was ineffective in impacting the general population," he said.

Few observers felt lasting change was likely to come of Obama's visit — at least not any time soon.

"Hun Sen said he wants to rule for another 30 years, and I believe that he will try," said Phil Robertson.